Trio of Kansas Supreme Court justices up for retention defend independent judiciary

Each affirms judiciary supports functioning democracy by adhering to rule of law

by Tim Carpenter, Kansas Reflector

Overland Park — Kansas Supreme Court Justice Melissa Taylor Standridge said the legislative and executive branches of government were distinct from the judicial branch because judges and justices were required to cast aside personal politics when making decisions.

“We are very different,” she told an audience Thursday night. “The first two branches of government cater to the people. Who do we cater to? The rule of law. Our own personal beliefs don’t matter. You can say that’s why we wear black robes because we leave everything behind. We have to make unpopular decisions sometimes.”

Standridge was joined at Johnson County Community College by Chief Justice Marla Luckert and Justice Evelyn Wilson, all of whom will be on the Nov. 8 ballot to determine whether they retain their jobs.

Six of the state’s seven state Supreme Court members face retention votes in a politically charged atmosphere given the statewide vote in August rejecting an abortion amendment to the Kansas Constitution drafted in response to a 2019 decision by the state’s highest court. The decision said the constitution guaranteed people bodily autonomy and, therefore, a right to abortion.

Some Kansas political activists have advocated defeat of justices in anticipation replacements would be opposed to abortion rights.

“Unfortunately, in recent years, there’s been more of a tendency for some factions to want to look at whether decisions came out the way they wanted them to look,” Luckert said.

Wilson, Luckert and Standridge devoted half of the “nonpartisan, educational” discussion to details of their educational, professional and legal backgrounds. Each justice touched on the value of an independent judiciary dedicated to fairness and impartiality in district court and appellate cases.

The forum also carved into three methods relied upon in Kansas to select justices or judges. It includes direct election and merit selection of district court judges, depending on jurisdiction. Spots on the Kansas Court of Appeals for nearly a decade have involved nominations by the governor followed by Kansas Senate confirmation. Supreme Court openings are filled through a merit-based evaluation of applicants by a nine-member commission with the final selection made by the governor.

The Supreme Court selection process in Kansas is distinct from the federal model in which the U.S. president nominates a person to the U.S. Supreme Court subject to confirmation by the U.S. Senate. Some Kansas politicians want to amend the Kansas Constitution to give the Kansas Senate veto power over a governor’s picks for the Supreme Court.

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly appointed Wilson and Standridge in 2020 to the state Supreme Court, while Republican Gov. Bill Graves appointed Luckert in 2002. Wilson and Luckert both served as district court judges in Shawnee County ahead of their appointments to the high court. Standridge served on the Kansas Court of Appeals for 13 years, writing more than 1,000 opinions, prior to shifting to the state Supreme Court.

Luckert said the merit-selection system to fill vacancies on the state Supreme Court was the most democratic in terms of allowing anyone with basic qualifications to apply.

She also said Kansans benefit from stability in the judiciary. A revolving door of judges and justices would inject turmoil into many facets of life, she said.

“People make life-and-death decisions based on the things we decide,” Luckert said. “Continuity of decision making and precedent is important to all kinds of aspects of the way our economy functions and the way our society functions.”

No state Supreme Court justice has been shown the door by voters in more than 60 years.

Much of the fervor in 2022 has centered on the state court’s decision three years ago that affirmed the Kansas Constitution guaranteed women bodily autonomy and access to abortion services. Kansas legislators and lobbyists who objected to the decision crafted the constitutional amendment to effectively nullify the court’s perspective on abortion rights, which took on greater significance after the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade that provided a national right to abortion for 50 years.

Kansans swarmed the polls in August to take part in the vote on the abortion amendment. It was rejected by a margin exceeding 170,000 votes.

In the past, capital punishment and school funding inspired organizations to seek ouster of Supreme Court justices.

Former Justice Carol Beier, who is part of Keep Kansas Courts Impartial, said voters in November should retain all six sitting justices whether appointed by a Republican or Democratic governor. Former Gov. Sam Brownback, speaking in August to the Wichita-based Culture Shield Network, said the vote was an opportunity to move the system toward appointment of more justices opposed to abortion.

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Kansas anti-abortion activists secure $119K for nine-county recount on abortion amendment

Colby resident falls short of $229K needed for a statewide hand recount

by Tim Carpenter and Sherman Smith, Kansas Reflector

Topeka — Anti-abortion activists incredulous about defeat of a Kansas constitutional amendment Monday dropped plans for a statewide recount of votes by earmarking $119,600 for a ballot-by-ballot review in populous Sedgwick, Johnson, Shawnee and Douglas counties and five others.

The campaign to raise $229,300 for a hand count in all 105 counties didn’t succeed by the 5 p.m. deadline, but sufficient resources were gathered to proceed with a nine-county recount that also included Crawford, Harvey, Jefferson, Lyon and Thomas counties.

The Kansas secretary of state’s office said the required bond from challengers of the Aug. 2 vote had been accepted. The nine counties were instructed to begin a hand recount of votes cast on the Value Them Both amendment, said Whitney Tempel, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Scott Schwab.

In the August primary election, the proposed amendment to the Kansas Constitution declaring women didn’t have a constitutional right to abortion in Kansas was rejected 59% to 41% with 920,000 votes cast statewide. Prior to the election, limited polling indicated the vote would be close with opponents of abortion likely winning a majority.

Colby resident Melissa Leavitt, who initiated the recount effort, said she appreciated the “awesome donor who backed us” with funding required by the secretary of state to proceed with the limited recount.

“My nerves have been on end, but you know what, we’ve had tons of prayers and tons of people fighting with us,” Leavitt said. “America: Kansas is in this to win it. We are just praying for exposure of anything that might have been nefarious and just some answers to put the voters of Kansas at peace.”

Through an online fundraiser, Leavitt received commitments of $40,000 from 600 donors. The contributor making up the $80,000 difference wasn’t identified by Leavitt.

Brian Caskey, director of elections for Secretary of State Scott Schwab, said an amount equal to the cost of a limited or full recount had to be presented to the office by 5 p.m. Monday. That bond could be posted in the form of cash, check or credit card with a sufficient line of credit.

“Failure to do so will result in the recount request being canceled,” Caskey said in a notice to Leavitt.

Ashley All, spokeswoman for the amendment opponent organization Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, said justification for the recount was a mystery.

“Kansans across the political spectrum voted overwhelmingly against this amendment,” All said. “In fact, 165,000 more Kansans voted ‘no.’ They sent a clear message that they want to protect the constitutional rights of women to make private medical decisions for themselves.”

In the nine counties targeted by the recount, a majority in eight counties voted against the abortion amendment. The strength of opposition ranged from 53% in Harvey County to 81% in Douglas County. Thomas County, with 68% supporting the amendment, was the lone county in the recount that voted to approve it.

Early Monday, Kansas Coalition for Life chairman Mark Gietzen of Wichita pledged to identify the $229,600 sought by Leavitt. He offered to put up his home to secure the bond required to order a statewide recount, but Schwab’s office said the offer of such property didn’t comply within guidelines of state law.

Gietzen had said a recount of all 105 counties would be conducted “unless we get screwed over” by the secretary of state’s office. By end of the day, Gietzen dipped into a retirement account to support the recount effort.

“The truth is,” he said, “who knows who won the vote.”

Gietzen tangled with the secretary of state’s office in the past. He alleged — without evidence — the Kansas election earlier this month was distorted by “massive” election fraud through “ballot harvesting.” He asserted people illegally obtained, filled out and deposited ballots in drop boxes.

He also filed a lawsuit in Sedgwick County before the August primary to stop use of drop boxes, but it was tossed by a judge.

Leavitt said she prayed a miracle occurred in terms of procuring resources to allow for a recount. She said she received “a lot of hate messages” since going public last week with her appeal.

“What else can you do when you take a leap of faith?” she said on social media. “There was no reason to go into this with a hateful energy against those who voted one way or another. Whichever way you chose to vote, it matters that it is properly counted.”

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Schwab’s campaign rebuffs election-integrity criticism from Kansas GOP rival Brown

Questions of security of voting process permeate race for secretary of state

by Tim Carpenter, Kansas Reflector

Topeka — The campaign of Secretary of State Scott Schwab pushed back Tuesday against Republican primary challenger Mike Brown’s attempt to blame the GOP incumbent for election administration mistakes in Rice and Douglas counties.

“Once again,” said Lydia Meiss, of the Schwab campaign, “Mike Brown is misrepresenting the facts for political gain, and fails to understand the role of the secretary of state’s office in election administration.”

Brown, a former Johnson County Commission member, has waged a campaign for secretary of state anchored to President Donald Trump’s baseless claims of 2020 election fraud and to allegations Schwab fell short in his role as the state’s top elections officer.

In texts to supporters, Brown touted a news story of the recent Kansas Court of Appeals decision declaring Schwab violated the Kansas Open Records Act. The appellate court said Schwab shouldn’t have instructed a company to switch off a computer software feature that made it easier for the public to access provisional ballot data.

Brown, of Overland Park, tried to link Schwab to mistakes by the Rice County clerk regarding inaccurate instructions to voters in a city council election and failure to forward two-dozen ballots to voters in a school ballot initiative. He suggested Schwab was responsible for a problem in Douglas County in which a printing company created duplicate ballots. Cards were sent to about 1,000 voters and local officials said procedures were in place to block double-voting.

Meiss, deputy campaign manager for Schwab, said Brown should be aware administrative mistakes would occur in the election process and often those situations were beyond jurisdiction of a secretary of state in Kansas. That was the case in Douglas and Rice counties, she said.

“The election administrative errors occurred at the local level, for a local election, where the secretary of state has no statutory authority to intervene,” she said. “Secretary Schwab has made it a priority to provide additional and enhanced training, resources and a training certification program to county election officials, beyond what is already required in state law. He will continue to do so in his second term.”

Schwab, who served Olathe in the Kansas House from 2009 to 2019, was elected secretary of state in 2018. He is seeking reelection to a second term and has repeatedly declared Kansas elections safe and secure.

Schwab was endorsed for reelection by former Gov. Sam Brownback and former U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, who praised Schwab for increasing post-election audits, improving security of election equipment and opposing attempts by the federal government to take greater control of Kansas elections.

Brown, who lost a 2020 reelection campaign for Johnson County Commission, has faced criticism for praising an $856,000 grant from the Center for Tech and Civic Life to support Johnson County’s election operation in 2020. The money was part of Facebook executive Mark Zuckerberg’s initiative to offer grants to local governments struggling with challenges of COVID-19, and some conservatives have objected to infusion of that outside cash.

Schwab’s campaign issued a statement that said the secretary of state didn’t accept Zuckerberg funding, but questioned Brown’s decision to support the county’s use of that grant money.

Schwab’s campaign also accused Brown of accepting thousands of dollars in anonymous online donations in excess of amounts allowed by state law.

“Mike talks a lot about integrity. It’s just that — all talk,” the Schwab campaign said. “Time and time again, Mike failed to act with integrity. He didn’t act with integrity when he was county commissioner and he’s already proven that he won’t as secretary of state.”

On Tuesday, Brown turned to Facebook to question Schwab’s skills because the word “integrity” was misspelled on a state website listing of political organizations. The campaign-finance reporting site operated by the secretary of state’s office and the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission listed the Election Integrity organization as “Election Integrety.”

“Our failed Kansas secretary of state, ‘Skippy’ Schwab, knows so little about election integrity he can’t even spell it,” Brown said. “It would be funny if it weren’t so shameful.”

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