Right or wrong Kansas judges are being scrutinized like never before.
Eleven judges for state-level courts are up for retention Nov. 8. Five seats on the Kansas Supreme Court join six seats on the Kansas Court of Appeals on the general election ballot.
Plus three local judges are on the ballot. District judges Doug Witteman and Eric Godderz are up for retention along with District Magistrate Judge Kevin Kimball.
Groups such as Kansans for Justice and Better Judges for Kansas have spent a lot money and time in a campaign to oust four of the five Kansas Supreme Court judges up for retention. Judges being targeted are Lawton Nuss, chief justice, Marla Luckert, Carol Beier and Daniel Biles.
The Better Judges for Kansas team organized presentations throughout the state educating Kansans on the retention elections, including the distribution of voter guides on who to retain and not to retain on the ballot.
Dane Hicks, Anderson County Review publisher and Anderson County Republican chairman, put together one of those meetings in Garnett in September.
“It was an explanation of the decisions made by the court over the past six, seven or eight years,” Hicks said. “How we got to this point. It has been a cumulative thing for most people.”
One of the chief reasons behind the crusade is the Supreme Court’s decision vacating the death sentence of two brothers, Jonathan and Reginald Carr, convicted in a murder case in Wichita.
They were sentenced to death for torturing, raping and killing four people and attempting to kill a fifth person in an execution-style slaying in December 2000 that was part of a days-long crime spree. The U.S. Supreme Court later overturned that decision and five others since 2009.
Another state Supreme Court decision that drew some ire was a ruling that potentially could have closed Kansas schools July 1 if the Legislature did not provide adequate public education funding. It forced a special session of the state Legislature to address the court’s decision.
“Some people are highly motivated by the abortion stance,” Hicks, who wrote a column in September about the judges’ retention, said. “Some people are highly motivated by decisions in the criminal cases.
“To me when the rubber hit the road was last summer when the Supreme Court basically said we are going to close your schools. That was an outrageous overreach to basically take your schools away from you.”
The other justice up for retention is Caleb Stegall, who was appointed in 2014 by Gov. Sam Brownback after the Carr decision. If retained, a justice serves for six years before being placed on the ballot again for retention.
A Kansas justice has never failed to be retained. Two years ago, justices Eric Rosen and Lee Johnson won their retention elections with a little more than 53 percent of the vote, the smallest margin of victory in Kansas history.
“The option has always been there,” Hicks said of non-retention vote. “There are at least three organizations who are involved [in the non-retention campaign]. We have been getting mailers and heard radio ads. It is a multi-prong approach. It is really an uphill battle though. We are so ingrained to either ignore those things because we don’t know anything about the judges.
“Some people say ‘I always vote to not retain all of them.’ Everybody has their own approach. I will be surprised if any them are successful. It is very important for people to understand they have that right to non-retain a judge.
“To my knowledge — either in Kansas or Missouri — this is the only time it has been that coordinated of an effort. Until this election, I don’t know if I knew what any of those guys looked like.”
It is not unprecedented for state justices to be ousted. Religious, social and constitutional conservatives upset by a unanimous 2009 Iowa Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage launched a successful campaign to remove three of the seven justices who were up for retention in 2010.
Judges Steve Leben, Joseph Pierron, David E. Bruns, G. Gordon Atcheson, Karen Arnold-Burger and Kathryn Gardner hold the Kansas appeals court seats up for retention. If retained, an appeals court judge serves for four years before the next retention election.
The appeals judges have come under fire from groups such as Kansans for Life, the state’s largest anti-abortion lobby group.
The judges heard a case in January that blocked the enforcement of a law banning the use of a abortion procedure known as dilation and evacuation.
The judges were split, 7-7, so the lower court’s ruling was allowed to stand.
“The anti-abortion element ... they are extremely passionate,” Hicks said. “They have always been. A significant number of people have gotten attached to the issue because of the cumulative effect of these examples.”
Hicks said having these groups become a part of the campaign process can be good for future elections.
“There will be more scrutiny and more debates about what those decisions have been and what led up to them,” he said. “It is good all the way around.”