The first TV spot has landed in the contentious battle to retain four Kansas Supreme Court justices in the November Election. The ad was paid for by Kansans for Fair Courts, the group backing retention.
The 30-second spot will start airing in the Wichita market on Friday and it takes on the two biggest issues Republicans and other conservatives are using against four of the five justices on the ballot: the death penalty and school finance.
The ad also tries to tie the ouster of the justices to Gov. Sam Brownback. "We could have five Sam Brownback clones on the Kansas Supreme Court. If we fire our Supreme Court justices Brownback can appoint up to five of the seven justices," the voiceover says while we see the justices disappear and replaced by a picture of Brownback. "Reject Sam Brownback’s power grab."
Those who want to oust the justices don't like the tone of the ad at all. "We are extremely offended that Kansans for Fair Courts continue to lie about who gets to pick the justices," says Amy James with a group called Kansans for Justice.
James points out that any new justice would have to come through the merit selection process. A nine-member committee vets applicants and sends three names to the governor, who makes the final choice. "To call this a power grab is just not the case," James says.
The spot touches on school funding, saying the court "ruled Brownback's" plan unconstitutional. This is a reference to the block grant funding passed by the Legislature two years ago and that expires at the end of the current fiscal year. Brownback called for a repeal of the former formula in his 2015 State of the State address.
In Wichita, the hottest debate around retention concerns the death penalty. The high court overturned the death sentences of the Carr brothers who killed five people in 2000. The U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty and the brothers are now on death row.
The ad ignores the Carr case but says, "They upheld the death penalty and kept us safe," over a head line that says the court upheld the death sentence for the man who killed the Greenwood County Sheriff in 2005.
But Kansans for Justice, which is a group made up of friends of family of the Carr brothers' victims, says the ad misrepresents the Greenwood County case. The Kansas Supreme court originally overturned the death sentence, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that improper and sent the case back. The state justices, using the guidance from the U.S. Supreme Court, then upheld the death sentence.
The justices overturned a string of death sentences in Kansas until recently. In addition to ultimately upholding the death sentence in the Greenwood County case, they also upheld the death sentence of serial killer John Robinson last November.
While the ad supports retaining all five justices on the ballot, Republicans have called for the ouster of only four. Conservatives want to retain Justice Caleb Stegall, who previously worked for Brownback.
Sam Zeff is co-host of the political podcast Statehouse Blend and covers education for KCUR, which is a partner in a statewide collaboration covering elections in Kansas. Follow Sam on Twitter @SamZeff.