TOPEKA, Kan. — Four Kansas Supreme Court justices targeted for ouster in this year’s election face anti-incumbent sentiment and a backlash over rulings that overturned death sentences for two brothers convicted of infamous multiple murders.
Conservative Republicans hope to give term-limited GOP Gov. Sam Brownback a chance to remake a seven-member court they view as too liberal. Families of victims of what became known as “the Wichita massacre” in 2000 want to remove the justices, and abortion opponents and the Kansas Republican Party have endorsed the campaign.
Brownback’s critics are working to thwart the effort in the name of preserving the court’s independence, but also so that it remains a check on the political right.
Key issues about the statewide votes Nov. 8 on whether the justices remain on the bench:
JUSTICES FACING RE-ELECTION
Five justices are on the ballot Nov. 8: Chief Justice Lawton Nuss and Justices Carol Beier, Dan Biles, Marla Luckert and Caleb Stegall.
The only non-target is Stegall, who is Brownback’s only appointee.
Nuss and Luckert were appointed by moderate GOP Gov. Bill Graves. Beier and Biles were appointed by Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who also named the court’s two other justices.
Kansas has attempted to insulate its highest court from partisan politics by having a lawyer-led commission screen applicants for each vacancy, with the governor appointing one of its three finalists. Legislators have no direct role, but justices face a statewide, yes-or-no vote every six years to determine whether they remain on the court.
“It doesn’t need to be fixed,” Graves said during an event in Topeka with three other former governors to kick off a campaign to retain all five justices.
The court’s critics contend that the system prevents the justices from being accountable to voters. Since Kansas began using it in 1960, no justice has been removed.
“I think we definitely see it as an uphill battle,” said Amy James, spokeswoman for the victims’ group, Kansans for Justice. “But it’s really the only way to have checks and balances on the justices.”
CAPITAL MURDER CASES
Advocates of ousting the four justices are focusing on July 2014 rulings that overturned death sentences for Jonathan and Reginald Carr.
The brothers were convicted of killing four friends, robbing them and forcing them to engage in sex acts before shooting them to death in a snow-covered Wichita field in December 2000. James was the girlfriend of one of the murder victims, Brad Heyka.
The Kansas court cited multiple issues in overturning their death sentences, but the U.S. Supreme Court rejected its conclusions in a sometimes-scathing ruling last January.
The Kansas court’s rulings did not release the Carr brothers but kept them in prison, facing life sentences instead of lethal injection. Former Democratic Gov. John Carlin argued during the recent pro-retention campaign event that it’s unfair to judge Kansas’ highest court based on a few decisions.
But the state Supreme Court repeatedly has overturned death sentences, and no execution has been scheduled under the state’s 1994 capital punishment law.
OTHER BIG ISSUES
Abortion rights opponents want to remake the Kansas Supreme Court partly because the justices are reviewing a lawsuit challenging a 2015 law in which the central question is whether the state constitution protects abortion rights more than the U.S. Constitution.
The justices also hear arguments Sept. 21 on whether legislators spend enough money on public schools. Past rulings have forced lawmakers to increase education spending.
Clay Barker, the Kansas GOP’s executive director, said many Republicans are frustrated with the court for “grabbing legislative power” in school funding decisions.
Graves countered that the justices have made sure that legislators fulfill a constitutional duty to provide a suitable education for every child.
BROADER POLITICAL CONTEXT
Barker said the move to remove justices is aided by widespread dissatisfaction that fueled Donald Trump’s rise to the Republican presidential nomination.
But with Kansas mired in budget problems, there also is a backlash against Brownback and his allies that could help the targeted justices. Fourteen conservative Republican legislators lost races in the August primary.
Associated Press writer Jim Suhr in Kansas City, Missouri, also contributed to this report.
Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna.