Get Ready For A Raucous Kansas Supreme Court Retention Race

May 24, 2016

Kansas Supreme Court Justice Marla Luckert (center) and Chief Justice Lawton Nuss (right) are being targeted for defeat when they stand for retention in November. Also being targeted by conservatives are Justices Carol Beier and Dan Biles.
Credit AP pool photo

The Senate race in Kansas isn't expected to be competitive and the governor isn't on the ballot this fall. So, the hardest fought statewide campaign might just involve four people you’ve never heard of.

For the first time ever there will be a coordinated effort to oust state Supreme Court justices.

The bad blood between the state Supreme Court and conservatives in Kansas goes back ten years to when the justices ordered the state to pump more than $500 million dollars more into public education.

Conservatives were furious and tried to amend the state Constitution to limit what the Supreme Court could do in a school finance case.

And the relationship between the two branches has continued to sour.

So much so that at the state Republican convention in Topeka May 14 the delegates voted to make ousting four high court justices a priority.

"What we’re going to see in November, without a doubt, we are going to see a tremendous amount of money spent on judicial elections -- retention elections -- in Kansas," says University of Kansas political science Professor Burdett Loomis, who leans Democratic.

Republicans are now 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 Justice Caleb Stegall. He was appointed by Gov. Sam Brownback so conservatives want him to stay on the bench. This complicates the campaign. It will be harder to for voters to make a distinction between Stegall and the four targeted justices.

It will be a three pronged attack.

The Republican Party will coordinate the effort.

Koch brothers interests will help fund the campaign, many expect at least a half-million dollars to be spent.

And an old high court adversary will do the field work.

Lead by Mary Kay Culp, Kansans for Life tried to boot Justice Beier from the Bench six years ago for her votes on abortion but failed.

Culp says conservatives are mounting the campaign because of the justices opinions and votes on school finance, the death penalty and, of course, abortion.

"We passed serious laws. Laws people really care about and then you go to the courts and they say, sorry. It’s like pulling the rug from out from under you after you’ve passed these laws," says Culp.

Mary Kay Culp, Executive Director of Kansans for Life will help lead the effort to oust four Kansas Supreme Court justices.
Credit Sam Zeff / KCUR 89.3

Culp says they’ll make phone calls, probably spend money on radio ads and send out postcards.

While this might feel like a regular political campaign, it’s far from it.

This is a retention election and that means Kansans will vote yes or no on whether these justices should keep their jobs.

But justices can't campaign, so others have to campaign on their behalf.

"We have three branches of government in this state. Not two branches and a twig," says Ryan Wright who is Executive Director of Kansans for Fair Courts.

Up until this year, he’s been battling attempts by the legislature to make it easier to impeach Supreme Court Justices, to defund the whole system, or restrict the authority of the chief justice.

"They’re not equipped to have a fair fight because they’re not politicians. That’s by design. We don’t want our judges to be politicians," says Wright.

Although they used to be exactly that.

Before a scandal in 1956 justices ran in partisan elections.

Since then, after the people changed the state constitution, Kansas has used a merit selection process; a committee recommends three candidates and the governor chooses from that list.

But Brownback and legislative Republicans have suggested two alternatives; the federal system where the chief executive appoints and the senate confirms or to a system where the voting public outright elects justices.

Both, says Wright, are bad ideas.

Which brings us back to pure politics. Politicians on all sides expect this Supreme Court retention battle to get nasty.

"There’s going to be a lot of name calling. There’s going to be a lot of political posturing," Wright says.

But the stakes couldn't be higher.

Right now conservatives hold the governor’s office and the Legislature.

Democrats, moderate Republicans and progressives fear that losing these four high court justices would push all of state government far to the right.

KCUR is part of a statewide collaboration covering elections in Kansas this year. 

Sam Zeff  covers education for KCUR and is co-host of the political podcast Statehouse Blend. Follow him on Twitter @SamZeff.