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Quartet Of Former Kansas Governors Hit The Road Supporting Supreme Court

Stephen Koranda

A bipartisan group of four former Kansas governors is predicting dire consequences if conservatives successfully oust four state Supreme Court justices.

Former Democratic Gov. John Carlin has the harshest assessment. If the justices are kicked off the bench in November's retention election "then the hole this (Brownback) administration has dug for us may be too deep to get out of," said Carlin, at a stop in Kansas City Tuesday. Carlin, who was in office from 1978-1986, also called this retention fight “chaos” and said it has “an indirect effect on economic growth” in the state.

The governors are on a two-day tour organized by Kansans for Fair Courts, the group campaigning on behalf of the targeted justices. Judges political activity is severely restricted. The four appeared at the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce before moving on to Topeka for a similar event; they're headed to Wichita next. 

Former Gov. Bill Graves, a Republican who served from 1994-2002 agreed. “We have the potential in this election to have tremendous upheaval in the stability, the institutional knowledge, the whole character and ability in our court system in our state.”

Conservative groups, including Kansans for Life, the state Republican Party and the state Chamber of Commerce  are committed to booting four justices off the Supreme Court: Carol Beier, Dan Biles, Marla Luckert and Chief Justice Lawton Nuss.

Also up for retention is the newest member of the court; Caleb Stegall who was appointed by Gov. Sam Brownback. 

Most conservatives are asking voters to retain Stegall but get rid of the other four. The former governors said they want all five justices to retain their seats. “We’re suggesting that there’s no reason that they shouldn’t all be retained regardless of which governor appointed them of which party that governor belonged to,” said former Gov. Mike Hayden, Republican governor from 1986-1990.

Conservatives have three main complaints about the four justices they seek to oust: the court's rulings on school finance, abortion, and the death penalty.

The toughest rhetoric has come from the state House Republicans. In an email last week they said the four have a “shameful disregard for the law and that they’ve been scolded on numerous occasions by the U.S. Supreme Court." House Republicans also said the justices use “their own erratic and illogical method” of interpreting laws.

But Hayden strongly disagreed and said he holds the court in high regard. “While we may have some disappointment or maybe some disagreement, 99.5 percent of the time the court’s been upheld. That’s a tremendous record and it should stand on its own merit.”

Graves said this is all driven by the conservative politics of Brownback and conservatives in the Legislature. Brownback has called several times for changing the current merit selection process and the Legislature has tried, but failed, to pass a constitutional amendment dumping merit selection.

“There’s clearly energy on the other side, if you will, and we just think it’s important that there be energy in support of retaining these five justices. So someone has to speak for the justices and we’ve chosen to do that,” said Graves.

The Executive Director of the Kansas Republican Party, Clay Barker, had little reaction to Tuesday's event. He did say that Stegall has been on the high court for just a year so "he hasn't done anything to have the voters not retain him."

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.

You deserve to know what your taxpayer dollars are paying for and what public officials are doing on your behalf – I’ll work to report on irresponsible government spending in the Kansas City area and shed light on controversies that slow government down. And when you hear my voice in the morning, you know you’re getting everything you need to start your day. Email me at sam@kcur.org, find me on Twitter @samzeff or call me at 816-235-5004.
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