Last week several former legislators called upon the governor to release the names of applicants to the Kansas Court of Appeals to the public.
Formerly, these names were made public under the judicial merit selection method where a nominating commission interviewed candidates for vacancies on the court. The commission recommended finalists, and then a finalist was selected by the governor. But during the past legislative session, merit selection was eliminated. Now, under a new law, the governor appoints judges and the Senate confirms them.
The former Republican moderate legislators, led by former Rep. Rochelle Chronister, issued a statement last week that “Kansans need to ask themselves, ‘what is Governor Brownback hiding’ by not releasing the names of applicants to the Court of Appeals.” She went on to say the system is not open and transparent as promised. “Unfortunately, by not coming clean with the voters, Kansans are left to wonder if he is attempting to pack the court.” The list of the moderates included : former Rep. Ray Cox of Bonner Springs and former Rep. Bob Frey, formerly of Wyandotte County.
Just last October, the names of the applicants for a vacant position on the Kansas Court of Appeals were released to the public by the judicial nominating commission. But since the law changed, these names are not being released by the governor.
I ran into the same closure of a list of applicants in January 2012 from the governor’s office when I requested the list for an open Wyandotte County judicial position.
These records have been closed to the public as the judicial applicants have been interpreted to be “employees” by the governor’s office. However, I disagree with that interpretation. In my opinion, the judges are elected officials, not employees. When the election is held, the Kansas Supreme Court and Court of Appeals judges’ names are on the ballot, with a “Yes” or “No” retention question. These candidates are not applying for a position in private business. They are applying for a leadership position in government, working for the taxpayers, and the taxpayers should have the right to know who they are.
The appointment process is similar to an election, and it is important for the public to know who the candidates are. The names of nominees for Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals had been open to the public since 1981, and the state had been using merit selection since 1958. The state had increasingly opened the selection process to public scrutiny in recent years, letting the public sit in on the interviews, and listen to the questions and answers.
Publicly announcing the names of candidates encouraged some level of public involvement in the selection process. The judicial commission encouraged the public to send in comments about the nominees, and that was part of the vetting process.
It was a grave oversight by the state legislators in the 2013 session who passed this new legislation on court appointments and who did not specifically state in the law that the applicants’ names should be made public. With the creation of a new position on the Court of Appeals, the secrecy involving the nominees and the elimination of merit selection, it certainly makes it look like a purely political appointment.
As Rep. Chronister said last week, “I think it’s important to remember that this is the second highest court in the state. And, any time that a politician attempts to do something in private, we should be worried. Government should be transparent and open; the public deserves to have a voice in this process. We need qualified judges so that we can ensure that our courts remain free and fair for all Kansans.”
Keeping government open encourages public trust, and secrecy on the part of our government encourages public mistrust. With the statements last week of the Republican moderates, it’s already too late to bring back that element of trust in government to the selection of this Court of Appeals position.
To reach Mary Rupert, editor, email firstname.lastname@example.org.