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Kansas Chief Justice Retiring After Tenure That Included Landmark Education And Abortion Cases

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Nomin Ujiyediin
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Kansas News Service
Chief Justice of the Kansas Supreme Court, Lawton Nuss with his wife, Barbara Nuss, January, 2019.

TOPEKA― Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton Nuss announced Friday he’ll retire in mid-December after serving on the state’s highest court since 2002, when Republican Gov. Bill Graves tapped him for the role.

That makes the second retirement announcement from the court in less than a month. Justice Lee Johnson will retire in September. He was appointed by Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius in 2007.

Nuss held the high court’s top job since 2010. During those years, he ruled with the majority of his colleagues in a massive school finance case that forced Gov. Sam Brownback and the Legislature to add hundreds of millions of dollars to schools that had taken a hit in the Great Recession.

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Marla Luckert is next in line to become chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court.

The lawsuit fueled ire among conservatives and helped spur unsuccessful attempts to rein in the court’s power or unseat its justices through retention elections.

Nuss and his fellow justices survived the campaigns to remove them.

He also ruled with the court majority this spring that the Kansas Constitution guarantees women the right to an abortion. That ruling, as well, has fueled talk of amending the state constitution to curtail the court’s powers on abortion.

Nuss used his time on the bench to lobby the Legislature repeatedly to raise pay for judicial employees and judges, pointing to salary studies pegging their compensation significantly below market rates. He had modest success.

In a statement put out by the Office of Judicial Administration, Justice Marla Luckert praised Nuss’ efforts, calling pay levels “critical to the effective delivery of justice.”

Luckert is the presumptive next chief justice. Another Graves appointee, she joined the court in 2003. That puts her next in line in terms of seniority, which passes the role of chief justice to her unless she turns it down.

Nuss called his time on the high court “the greatest privilege of my 37-year legal career” in the statement announcing his decision.

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Credit Charlie Riedel / The Associated Press
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The Associated Press
Kansas Supreme Court Justice Lee Johnson will retire in September.

To fill the upcoming court vacancies, Kansas uses a nomination process. A nominating commission of lawyers and non-lawyers interviews applicants and forwards three top contenders to the governor.

The commission comes from all four congressional districts. Governors appoint four of the nine members, and lawyers elect the other five.

These will be Democratic Governor Laura Kelly’s first appointees to the court.

New justices face a retention vote after their first year on the court. Otherwise, those votes fall every six years.

Nuss’ retirement takes effect Dec. 17. A graduate of the University of Kansas School of Law, he previously practiced law in Salina.

Also during his time on the high court, but before becoming chief justice, Nuss sparked controversy when he met with lawmakers over lunch and talked about a different school finance lawsuit.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen reports on consumer health and education for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @Celia_LJ or email her at celia (at) kcur (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

I'm inspired to write about how we can all live healthier, happier lives. That means stories about preventive care and societal changes that can beat back disease and chronic conditions so we make fewer trips to the doctor in the first place. And when people do have to go to the doctor, I want to give them tools to find and afford the right care. I’m also interested in what it’s like for employers trying to build high-quality health plans that don't break the bank. Email me at celia@kcur.org.
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