TOPEKA, Kan. (KSNT) — Kansas’ highest court is under a microscope, as lawmakers consider sweeping changes to how Supreme Court justices are nominated.
Two proposed constitutional amendments, introduced by Senate President Ty Masterson, are moving through the state Legislature. In an interview, Masterson said the state needs “a new system.”
“The truth is it needs to have a voice of the people, and that’s why we introduced both potential models, both Elections and the Federal model,” Masterson said. “One is a direct voice of the people, and the other is, just like we have it, a federal model, where the Senate has a say in who that is, and the Governor is wide-open in that model to appoint whoever she likes.”
The Republican Senator from Andover said he’s trying to “fix” a system that doesn’t allow the Senate to confirm Supreme Court justices, calling it “the least democratic way in the nation.”
SCR 1621 is a proposed amendment that would allow for a federal model, in which the Senate confirms appointments made by the governor. SCR 1622 is another proposal that would allow for a statewide election of justices.
Currently, the Senate is able to confirm or reject potential appointments made by the governor through the Court of Appeals. Supreme Court justice picks, however, are filtered through a state Supreme Court Nominating Commission. The commission sends three nominees to the governor out of dozens of applicants.
Masterson’s proposals would abolish the nominating commission. Some Democrats argue that this would give the state’s Republican supermajority control over who’s appointed. In a hearing for both of Masterson’s proposals on Friday, Linda Weiss, one of the four nonlawyer members of the commission, defended the intense process used to vet applicants.
“I may not be an attorney, but I know the law … I know when I vet people, the people who are honest, the people who have integrity,” Weiss said.
Some people voiced strong support for the amendments. Brittany Jones, an attorney and representative for Kansas Family Voice, said both plans would provide more transparency in the process.
“We want to maintain that integrity, but they also should be accountable to the people,” Jones said. “We believe that either one of these systems does provide a level of accountability and a level of oversight.”
Other proponents of the legislation also argued that the nominating committee is mainly controlled by the Kansas Bar Association, with five members, the majority, being lawyers. Senate President Ty Masterson said the process Kansas uses gives “undue power” to the Bar.
“Even the governor has a minority of the positions on that election commission,” Masterson said.
However, democrats and opponents of the resolutions defended the current merit system that the state has in place. Sen. David Haley, D-Kan. City, brought up the famous Kansas Triple Play scandal during questioning.
Opponents said it was the “icing on top” that led the state to pivot from having direct Supreme Court selection. At the time, incumbent Republican Gov. Fred Hall was defeated in the 1956 primary, losing his shot at reelection.
Not too long after, there was a coincidental opening on the state’s Supreme Court when Chief Justice William Smith stepped down due to ill health. A few days later, Gov. Hall resigned with just a little more than a week left in his term. This allowed Lt. Gov. John McCuish to serve in his place.
McCuish immediately used his new authority as governor to appoint Hall to the open Supreme Court spot. While the move was legal at the time, some saw it as unethical, calling the leader’s integrity into question.
Jim Robinson, a lawyer from Wichita, who’s also a member of the Kansas Bar Association, questioned whether lawmakers could always “trust the governor” and advocated for a system free of politics.
“The law needs to be ageless,” Robinson said. “It needs to continue on without regard to changes of public opinion or changes in political attitudes.”
If two-thirds of both the House and Senate pass the proposed resolutions, then they will be on the August ballot for people to vote on in this year’s primary election.