- Associated Press - Saturday, January 23, 2016

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and his allies are trying to revive their push to remake Kansas’ courts by stoking public outrage over its recent rulings on abortion and the death penalty.

Brownback has repeatedly advocated overhauling how Kansas Supreme Court justices are selected, saying in his most recent State of the State address that the current system is “controlled by a handful of lawyers.” Change requires amending the state constitution, a difficult process in which the governor and his allies have been stymied.

While critics describe the current system for selecting Kansas Supreme Court members as undemocratic, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff King said rulings voters dislike can get their attention.

“It may raise the importance of a good method of selection to people in the public who haven’t thought about it before,” said King, an Independence Republican who advocates change.

Prominent GOP conservatives immediately called for change after the U.S Supreme Court ruled that Kansas’ highest court was wrong to overturn death sentences for Jonathan and Reginald Carr. The brothers had faced execution for four murders in Wichita in December 2000 following a night of mayhem in which they sexually abused and robbed their victims.

Republicans cited the brutality of the crimes and described the Kansas court as out of touch with the state’s voters.

But Rep. Jim Ward, a Topeka decried the “politicization” of their cases as “disgusting.” Rep. Boog Highberger, a Lawrence Democrat, said the state’s highest court shouldn’t be judged by a single case.

“I don’t think that it shows we need a new method for selecting judges,” Highberger said.

Brownback’s allies jumped again Friday when the Kansas Court of Appeals continued blocking enforcement of a 2015 state law that imposed the nation’s first ban on a common second-trimester procedure described by critics as “dismemberment abortion.” The Kansas Supreme Court is expected to review the case.

Kansas House Republicans headlined their statement on the week’s events with, “Judicial activism: Closer to home than you might think.”

“The need for Judicial Reform is more pressing than ever,” Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, a Nickerson Republican, said in his statement.

Four of the seven current state Supreme Court justices were appointed by Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. Two others were chosen by moderate GOP Gov. Bill Graves, and only one was selected by the staunch conservative Brownback.

A nominating commission screens applicants for state Supreme Court vacancies and submits three finalists to the governor. He must pick one; there is no Senate confirmation or other role for legislators. Every six years, voters decide whether a justice stays on the bench; none has been removed since the system began in 1960.

Five of the nominating commission’s nine members are attorneys chosen by other attorneys, and one of the lawyers leads the commission. The state has about 17,000 registered attorneys, and in 2014, about 2,500 of them, or 14.6 percent, participated in the election of the commission’s chairwoman.

Supporters of the process contend that it minimizes partisan politics. Jordan Yochim, executive director of the Kansas Bar Association, said the attorneys who participate in picking commission members are “as diverse as the people of Kansas.”

“The current call for change in the courts is politically driven,” Yochim said.

Brownback has suggested scrapping the nominating commission and either electing the justices or having the governor appoint them, subject to state Senate confirmation. The Senate approved the latter proposal in 2013, only to see it languish in the House.

Either proposal could result in a more conservative Supreme Court. While Democrats regularly have been elected governor in the past 50 years, the GOP swept all statewide and congressional races starting in 2010. The Senate has had Republican majorities for more than 100 years.

Brownback’s election as governor in 2010 marked a hard turn to the right for Kansas politics after decades of Democratic and moderate GOP governors. Republican supermajorities in both legislative chambers put GOP conservatives in charge.

But in the House, Democrats and moderate Republicans have retained enough votes to deny GOP conservatives the two-thirds majority they need to pass a constitutional change on how Kansas Supreme Court justices are selected - keeping it from going to voters for their approval.


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

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