Kansas high court justices defend handling of capital cases

AP News
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Posted: Oct 28, 2016 8:06 PM
Kansas high court justices defend handling of capital cases

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Four Kansas Supreme Court justices facing a campaign to oust them in the Nov. 8 election say the court has decided capital murder cases on legal and constitutional issues while avoiding politics and emotion.

Past high court rulings overturning death sentences are at the center of the effort to remove Chief Justice Lawton Nuss and Justices Carol Beier, Dan Biles and Marla Luckert. They face statewide yes-or-no votes on whether they stay on the court for another six years.

The court's critics are particularly upset about July 2014 rulings overturning death sentences for Jonathan and Reginald Carr. The two brothers had faced lethal injection for shooting four people in December 2000 after forcing them to perform sex acts and robbing them. Among other things, the court concluded that fairness required the brothers to be sentenced separately.

The four justices declined to discuss specific cases this week, citing judicial ethics rules, but they provided written answers to questions from The Associated Press. Nuss and Luckert noted that the court has upheld several death sentences, and all four said the court is fair and impartial.

"I can say that our court sees a great deal of human tragedy, and, as people, my colleagues and I feel enormous natural sympathy for those in pain," Beier wrote Friday. "As judges, however, we have a duty not to be influenced by our feelings. This is one of the great challenges of our job."

Nuss and Luckert were named to the court by moderate Republican Gov. Bill Graves, while Beier and Biles were appointed by Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. All were retained with at least 62 percent of the vote in 2010.

Also on the ballot is Justice Caleb Stegall , conservative GOP Gov. Sam Brownback's only appointee. He joined the high court in December 2014 — after the Carr decisions and others overturning death sentences — and isn't targeted by the ouster campaign.

Stegall said courts should not be immune from criticism, "but the judicial function demands that judges stay out of these political arguments."

Conservative Republicans and abortion opponents are pushing to remove Nuss, Luckert, Beier and Biles ahead of decisions in pending abortion and school funding cases.

But Amy James, spokeswoman for the anti-retention group Kansans for Justice , said she and other murder victims' families and friends don't see criticizing the court's death penalty rulings as "about politics." One of the Carrs' murder victims was her boyfriend, Brad Heyka.

"This is an issue that we feel crosses all parties and really doesn't have a party affiliation," James said.

Criticism of the decisions in the Carr cases resonates strongly with some voters. Dennis Rees, a 63-year-old retired Wichita executive, cited the rulings after voting against the justices this week.

"When people are caught, accused, tried and the matter adjudicated, it is not the business of the Supreme Court to overrule a fair trial," Rees said.

Kansas reinstated capital punishment in 1994 but no one has been executed since, with the state Supreme Court overturning death sentences seven times in 20 years. Five of those decisions were later reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court, including the Carr rulings.

But Luckert noted in her response to AP, "no one convicted of capital murder in Kansas has been let out of prison during that process."

The Kansas court has upheld three death sentences within the past year. Speaking in general, Nuss wrote that such rulings represent "decisions that were warranted by the law as applied to the specific facts and proceedings in each individual case."

Biles said parties in cases and their supporters are expected to sometimes criticize the court's decisions. But he said the justices must make decisions "in a fair and impartial manner."

"As a result, we must stay above the fray," Biles wrote.

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Also contributing was Associated Press writer Roxana Hegeman in Wichita.

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .