- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 22, 2016

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - A bill declaring that Kansas Supreme Court justices can be impeached for attempting to infringe on the Legislature’s power was narrowly approved Tuesday in the state Senate, but a split among majority Republicans signaled the measure could face difficulty moving ahead.

The Senate’s vote of 21-19 reflected some misgivings within its GOP supermajority about a proposal that critics labeled an attack on the court system’s independence. The measure goes next to the House, where similar divisions among Republicans exist.

It’s the latest in a series of initiatives putting Kansas at the center of a national effort by GOP conservatives to remake state courts. Those have included failed efforts to change how Supreme Court justices are chosen and a threat by lawmakers - later dropped - to nullify the court system’s entire budget.

The vote Tuesday also came less than six weeks after the Supreme Court ordered lawmakers to increase state aid for poor school districts - or face having all public schools shut down in July.

Supporters said the bill simply gives examples of what the state constitution means when it says Supreme Court justices can be impeached and removed from office for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The new list would include “wanton or reckless judicial conduct” and “attempting to usurp the power” of legislators or executive-branch officials.

“This bill clarifies the checks and balances on the branches of Kansas government,” said Sen. Greg Smith, an Overland Park Republican who is one of 18 sponsors of the measure.

But Rep. Steve Becker, a retired district court judge, said the bill is so broad that any time the court strikes down a law, it could be seen as usurping lawmakers’ power - allowing for judges to be impeached.

“It totally handicaps the Supreme Court,” the Buhler Republican said. “It would render the Supreme Court useless, basically.”

Republicans hold 32 seats in the Senate, but 11 GOP senators joined all eight Democrats in voting against the bill, including Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff King, of Independence. A Washington-based group, Justice at Stake, called the measure “an affront to democracy.”

The bill’s supporters said they aren’t attacking the Supreme Court. In committee, they added language creating a similar list of examples of impeachable offenses for the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and secretary of state.

Still, as the Senate considered the measure, supporters repeatedly suggested that the Supreme Court has overstepped its authority in some of its decisions.

“We live in an era when people believe the independence of the courts and absolute power are synonymous,” said Sen. Mitch Holmes, a St. John Republican and another sponsor of the bill.

In other states, conservative groups have spent heavily in contested judicial elections, most recently in Arkansas.

But in Kansas, justices are appointed by the governor after a commission led by lawyers screens applicants and picks three finalists, with no role for legislators. Justices face “retention” elections every six years, remaining in office unless more than 50 percent of voters vote against them.

Four of Kansas’ seven Supreme Court justices were appointed by Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who served from 2003 to 2009, and two by her predecessor, Bill Graves, a moderate Republican. Only one was appointed by current Gov. Sam Brownback, a conservative Republican.

Conservatives are expected to push this year for Kansas voters in the November election to remove four justices - two Sebelius appointees and the two Graves appointees.

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Online:

Text of impeachment bill: https://bit.ly/1UC2pyE

Senate’s vote: https://bit.ly/1RiAfTJ

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

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