This story is part of a 2016 Kansas elections collaboration involving the KHI News Service, KCUR, KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and High Plains Public Radio.
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 during a stop Tuesday in Kansas City. Carlin, who served as governor from 1978 to 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 to 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 removing four Kansas Supreme Court justices: 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 or which party that governor belonged to,” said former Gov. Mike Hayden, Republican governor from 1986 to 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 Kansas 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.
“We’re suggesting that there’s no reason that they shouldn’t all be retained, regardless of which governor appointed them or which party that governor belonged to.”- former Gov. Mike Hayden, a Republican who served from 1986 to 1990
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,” he said.
Graves said this is all driven by the politics of Brownback and conservatives in the Legislature. Brownback has called several times for changing the current merit selection process for judges, 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,” Graves said. “So someone has to speak for the justices, and we’ve chosen to do that.”
Clay Barker, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, 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.