Justice Marla Luckert may have won over a few fans Tuesday afternoon when she told a gathering of high school seniors, “I’m a nerd. I love to do research and write, which is one reason I love my job.”
Luckert is senior justice on the Kansas Supreme Court. She and Chief Justice Lawton Nuss were in Iola for the greater part of the day and into the evening to meet with students from seven area high schools and members of the public to discuss their roles on the High Court.
For the students, the hour-long session included a brief overview of the court system as well as a mock trial regarding an actual case that made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The students interacted with the justices, showing they were up to snuff in their civics lessons.
Luckert explained how the three branches of government help guard against a concentration of power in one over another. Luckert referred to James Madison, an author of the U.S. Constitution, who argued for the system saying, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” so pure would their every motive be. “But experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”
Luckert described the responsibilities of each branch as thus; the executive, the sword; the legislative, the purse; and the judiciary, as an arbiter of the law.
MORE AND more cases come the way of the Kansas Supreme Court, said Nuss. Last year, the justices reviewed about 900 cases of which they agreed to hear 73.
In Nuss and Luckert’s tenure, they have heard about 3,000 cases, he said. Of those only six have been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Nuss was first appointed to the high court in 2002 and became Chief Justice in 2010. Luckert was appointed in 2003.
The justices maintain Kansas has a superior system of nominating and retaining judges. Currently a commission nominates three to the court with the governor getting the final say. The nominating commission is comprised of nine members, five are attorneys and four are non-attorneys, representing the state’s four congressional districts. The governor appoints the lay members while attorneys select among their peers the other spots. The fifth attorney comes from a statewide vote of attorneys.
Fans of the process say it allows for wide representation on the panel, avoiding the influence of special interests of one region over another.
“It’s a somewhat grueling process,” Nuss said. “Attorneys are very hard on their peers. And the lay members are just as diligent.”
The justices then face retention elections every six years. Both Nuss and Luckert are on this year’s ballot, as well as justices Caleb Stegall, Carol Beier and Dan Biles.
The system is steeped in history, Luckert said, going back to Kansas City’s T.J. Pendergast who ran a “criminal empire,” from 1925 to 1939.
“If you didn’t have a pat on the back from Tom Pendergast you got nowhere,” Luckert said. “Everyone was elected, from the groundskeeper to the governor.”
Pendergast’s influence on several judicial elections convinced voters of the need to pass The Missouri Plan which implemented the merit system of appointing judges.
Kansas’s own “Triple Play” debacle in 1956 similarly convinced Kansas voters to change its constitution to the merit selection of judges.
In the “Triple Play,” outgoing Kansas Gov. Fred Hall convinced his Lt. Gov. John McCuish to appoint him to the Kansas Supreme Court. To make all the cards fall in place, sitting Chief Justice Bill Smith resigned on Dec. 31, 1956; Hall resigned as governor on Jan. 3, 1957 whereupon McCuish became governor and appointed Hall to the High Court. That was McCuish’s only official act as governor. Eleven days later, newly elected George Docking took office.
FOR ALMOST 60 years Kansas maintained the merit system for its appointment of judges to the state’s 31 District Courts, the Court of Appeals and the Kansas Supreme Court.
In 2013, however, that selection method for the 14 judges to the Court of Appeals came to a halt when state legislators, at Gov. Sam Brownback’s urging, gave the governor the sole privilege to nominate judicial candidates, upon Senate approval.
Because the Court of Appeals was not formed established until 1977 and thus was not included in the original constitution, legislators could enact the change with only a majority vote of legislators, Luckert said.
This year Gov. Brownback’s request for sole power to nominate members to the Kansas Supreme Court failed to pass in the Kansas House of Representatives. House members favored the proposed, 58-54. The vote needed a two-thirds majority, or 84 votes, to pass.
Ultra-conservatives have also tried to change how members of the court are elected and the service of their terms.
Currently, the judges need only a majority vote to be retained. Legislators asked that be changed to a two-thirds majority.
The justices also can serve until they are 75. Legislators asked that be changed to 65.
Both measures failed.
Legislators are elected by a majority vote with no age stipulation attached.