- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 3, 2016

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Kansas lawmakers are considering giving the governor more authority over who is appointed to the state Supreme Court, which has been under increasing attacks by conservatives who say it is too liberal.

A proposed constitutional amendment to change the selection system received first-round approval in the House on Wednesday and advances to a final vote that could come Thursday. The measure needs from two-thirds of the House’s members, or 84 of 125, to advance to the Senate.

With major cases on school funding and abortion restrictions now pending before the high court, Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and his allies are seeking to change its makeup. Last year, Brownback openly campaigned against the retention of two state Supreme Court justices.

The state’s high court judges are chosen by five attorneys and four public members selected by the governor. The non-partisan committee then chooses three finalists, with the governor making the final selection. A proposed constitutional amendment would change the system so that the governor would nominate justices, who would then be approved for the court by a majority of the Senate.

During debate Wednesday, opponents argued the move is drastic. Supporters argued that the current process is undemocratic.

Rep. James Todd, a Republican from Overland Park, presented the proposed amendment and pointed out that it’s the model used to appoint people to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“That model has served this nation well and will serve Kansas well if we adopt it,” Todd said.

Chief Justice Lawton Nuss told reporters that he doesn’t think a change to how justices are selected is necessary.

“I think our system has worked fine for a long time,” Nuss said, noting that residents vote to retain justices every six years. “I don’t know how much more democratic you can get.”

During the House debate, Republican Rep. John Rubin argued that the state’s high court exercised poor judgment when it overturned death sentences for brothers Jonathan and Reginald Carr over the murders of four people in Wichita in December 2000. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Kansas high court’s decision last month.

“A judicial court that so misunderstands and misconstrues the Constitution … demonstrates that there are fundamental flaws in which we select the justices for our Supreme Court,” Rubin, a Republican from Shawnee, said.

Critics say the measure is a way for Brownback to select high court judges who will rule to his liking. An education funding lawsuit from four local districts is still before the state Supreme Court. The court is also expected to take up a lawsuit against the state’s first-in-the-nation ban on a common second-trimester abortion method; the Kansas Court of Appeals recently refused to implement the ban.

Republican Rep. Steven Becker from Buhler was one of several opponents who called the proposal an “overreaction” to court rulings that lawmakers don’t like.

“When I came to the legislative branch I was surprised by the level of animosity between the Legislature and the judicial,” Becker said.

Kansas’ judicial selection method came about after a political scandal in 1957, when Gov. Fred Hall resigned after losing in the GOP primary and was then appointed to a vacant Supreme Court seat by the former lieutenant governor.

The proposed amendment comes on the heels of another measure that could have withdrawn the court system’s entire budget over a dispute surrounding the high court’s power.

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Online:

Proposed amendment: https://bit.ly/1AjdSHk .

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