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Kansas Judges Targeted For Ouster Retain Seats

Kansans voted to retain two Kansas Supreme Court justices under fire for their decision to overturn the death sentences of two brothers in one of the most notorious murder cases in the state’s history.

The two, Justice Eric S. Rosen and Justice Lee A. Johnson, were appointed to the court by former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.

Kansas Supreme Court justices are appointed by the governor but stand for retention by voters at the end of their six-year terms.

Normally a placid and understated affair – no appellate judge in Kansas has ever lost a retention election – this year’s election drew unaccustomed attention after Republican Gov. Sam Brownback endorsed the efforts of a group called Kansans for Justice to persuade voters to oust Rosen and Johnson.

Eliminating “liberal” justices was one of Brownback’s central campaign promises. Had Rosen and Johnson been voted out, the governor would have appointed their replacements.

Both justices were part of a 6-1 majority that voted in July to overturn the sentences of Jonathan and Reginald Carr. The brothers were sentenced to death for killing four people in Wichita in a grisly weeklong killing spree in 2000.

The court ruled that there were procedural errors in the men’s sentencing. While awaiting resentencing, they remain in prison and could be sentenced to death again. 

Rosen was appointed to the court in 2005 and Johnson in 2007.

This wasn’t the first time Supreme Court justices have been targeted for their perceived liberal views. In 2010, Kansans for Life led a campaign against Justice Carol Beier after she wrote opinions critical of then-Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline for his conduct during investigations of abortion clinics.

In another retention election that made news Tuesday, Johnson County voters retained District Judge Kevin Moriarty by a comfortable margin. Like Rosen and Johnson, Moriarty was the target of a campaign to remove him from office – in his case because he ordered the court clerk to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt later asked the Kansas Supreme Court to vacate Moriarty’s order. That case is set to be heard on Nov. 6.

The campaign against Moriarty was spearheaded by Bruce Baumgardner, a physiology professor at Johnson County Community College who is married to Republican Kansas Sen. Molly Baumgardner. Moriarty was appointed to the court in 2004 by Sebelius.

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
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