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Kansas Senate Blocks Reform for State Courts

March 10, 2011 J

The decisions made by Kansas’s appellate courts affect everyone in our state, yet the judges making those decisions are selected by an elite group of lawyers who represent less than 1 percent of Kansans. A new bill being considered by the Kansas legislature would change that, however, and provide voters a voice in the selection of our judges.

The bill, HB 2101, was introduced by Rep. Lance Kinzer and passed last month by the House. It corrects our current highly-politicized system by taking the power out of the hands of lawyers and placing it back in the hands of Kansans. If passed, our system would resemble the federal model – the governor will appoint appellate judges and the Senate will confirm them.

Considering we already require Senate confirmation for appointments ranging from cabinet positions to the Central Interstate Low-Level Radioactive Waste Commission, the legislature would still have a say in the process. And the current lawyer-dominated nominating commission would no longer have a monopoly on picking judges for Kansas’s two appellate courts.

This bill, supported by Governor Brownback, could not come at a better time. Our current system of selecting judges has failed us, creating highly politicized courts we have endured for the past decade, examples of which are prevalent. For instance, in Montoy v. State of Kansas, the Kansas Supreme Court decided that the legislature’s appropriation for school funding was inadequate and directed them to increase funding. This clear violation of the separation of powers outlined in the Kansas Constitution was a product of judges selected by our failed system.

Additionally, under the current system, the judges are not accountable to Kansa when such egregious decisions occur. The Kansas Supreme Court has an extremely controversial record on the death penalty, which some say is out of step with the people of Kansas. When it comes to sentencing criminals, should we trust trial lawyers and the state bar to select the very judges they and their colleagues will be arguing before? Common sense dictates that this is not an unbiased way to pick judges.

In the coming weeks, the Kansas Supreme Court will have yet another opportunity to weigh in on an extremely important case – this one regarding medical malpractice reform. In Miller v. Johnson, the court has been asked to strike the state’s 25-year-old cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits. The current $250,000 cap was enacted by legislators because rising medical malpractice insurance premiums were deterring doctors from practicing in Kansas.

The decisions made by Kansas’s courts have a very real impact on the people who live, work, and do business in our state. While we need larger reform—the bill focuses specifically on reforming the selection method of our appellate court judges—HB 2101 is a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, it is being held up in the Senate Judiciary Committee. To date, the chair of the committee, Sen. Tim Owens, has refused to hold committee hearings on HB 2101, thus thwarting Senate discussion on this important bill. Friday, March 18th is the last day that this bill can be heard in committee. With this deadline fast approaching, it is my hope that Kansans contact Sen. Owens and ask for a voice in selecting their judges.

Derrick Sontag is the Kansas State Director of Americans for Prosperity

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