News from the Capitol--January 25, 2016

We’ve reached the two week point of the legislative session and our work continues on a number of fronts.  This week, however, I want to talk about something very important to me:  our courts.

For many years, many legislators have pushed the need for reform to the judicial selection process.   A relic of the late 1950’s, it is the only system in the nation like it, allowing a narrow interest group with no accountability to the public to control the process by which judicial nominees are selected. 

The result of this unusual system is that it produces judges who deliver court opinions that a sizable number of 39th District constituents consider extreme or out of mainstream jurisprudence.  Simply put, an entire branch of government is chosen by a special interest group which has a direct stake in the process, which undermines Kansans’ faith in the selection system.   Here is a chart which shows the system of judicial selection we use in Kansas:

 As you can see, we are the only one in the nation like this.  We have seen the fruits of this selection system in the past, such as in the Montoy decision, when the Kansas Supreme Court arrogated the power of the purse of the legislature, ordering it to spend a specific amount of money on a specific allocation. In the past week, one ruling by the Kansas Supreme Court was reversed in an 8-1 ruling by the United States Supreme Court. Another ruling by a district judge that jeopardizes every mainstream abortion restriction put in place in the past several years was allowed to stand due to a divided Kansas Court of Appeals in a 7-7 decision. These cases are detailed more below.

While we have made reforms to the Kansas Court of Appeals, which only required a change in statute,  the judicial nominees for the Kansas Supreme Court are still chosen utilizing the Missouri Plan with the nominating commission. The consensus is to move our system to one like the federal model, where the governor nominates a judge and the Senate confirms. This would result in a balanced court – Governor Graves and Sebelius would still have appointed justices in alignment with their philosophies, as would Governor Brownback. The point is the court appointments would be conducted by the executive and the Senate elected by, and accountable to, the people of Kansas.

However, the changes there require a 2/3 majority of each chamber, plus an affirmative vote of the people of Kansas because it requires an amendment to the Kansas Constitution.  As you know, judges all stood for election in Kansas before 1960.  The Kansas Senate adopted a Constitutional Amendment for the federal model in the 2015 Session, however, the Kansas House has not yet voted on the bill.  It is the House’s intention to get the votes required to do that this year. Regarding the cases in question:
US Supreme Court Ruling in Carr Brothers Case
On the evening of December 14th, Reginald and Jonathan Carr continued their crime spree after committing an armed robbery and murdering a 55-year-old woman in the week prior. The pair picked a home to rob and broke in. Their they found 5 friends Brad Heyka, Heather Muller, Aaron Sander, Jason Befort and his girlfriend, and a young woman identified as Holly G. The Karr brothers ransacked the house before sexually assaulting and attacking the victims. The brothers then took the five to a field where they were shot execution style before being run over by a truck. One woman survived who was able to report the attack. The Carr brothers were sentenced to death by a jury after being convicted in the “Wichita massacre” which occurred in 2000. 

The Kansas Supreme Court reversed the death penalty determination in 2014 on the grounds that the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution doesn’t allow the pair to be sentenced at the same time, as they were in this case. This month, in a striking 8-1 reversal, the United States Supreme Court overturned that Kansas Supreme Court ruling. Read more about the Supreme Court opinion in this article

A Remarkable Kansas Appeals Court Ruling

Last session, the Legislature overwhelmingly approved a ban on dismemberment abortion.  It is a cruel and barbaric method that involves tearing off the limbs of a living unborn child. Sadly, in 2013, dismemberment abortions accounted for 600 out of the 7,500 abortions in Kansas.

Despite the overwhelming support for banning this practice in the legislature, abortion rights groups challenged the ruling in Shawnee County Court and the district judge struck down the law, opining that there was a right to abortion in the Kansas Constitution and that dismemberment ban violated this right. 

The case was appealed by the Kansas attorney general and this week, the Kansas Court of Appeals released a ruling in which the 14 justices were equally divided 7-7. Unfortunately, a tied ruling upholds the lower court ruling, continuing the hold on the dismemberment ban. 

The case will be appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court, but, considering the court’s history (note the Carr brothers case), there is a fear it will not reverse the lower court’s decision. In that case, it would place in jeopardy all the other pro-life legislation we have enacted in Kansas; laws that have been upheld under Roe vs. Wade that a vast majority of Kansans support.

The reasoning is that if the court finds there is an independent right to abortion under the Kansas Constitution, Kansas Courts could ignore the rulings under Roe vs. Wade and instead nullify pro-life laws based on that State Constitution interpretation. Truly, everything we have done for innocent life would be jeopardized.

That is why the Kansas legislature is reforming the judicial selection process to the federal method, which was thoroughly debated and perfected by our Founding Fathers.

Pro Life Rally
This week I was proud to stand for life with thousands of others in Topeka. It is a tremendous honor each year to take part in the March for Life Rally on the Capitol steps. This show of support by so many here and in Washington D.C. is especially important in light of The Kansas Court of Appeals decision.

Other Items Of Note  

Improving Our Grand Jury Law
Earlier this week, the Kansas House has approved a bill aimed at making it harder for judges or prosecutors to influence the work of grand juries convened by citizens.  The bill would allow people who are responsible for calling a grand jury to observe a judge's instructions to the jurors. It passed overwhelmingly with only 20 of 125 legislators opposed – I voted yes. The measure goes next to the Senate.

I supported this measure because I believe it’s an issue of fundamental fairness to those who are able to call a grand jury through the citizen initiative process.  

Welfare Reform
House Republicans on Thursday announced new proposals to the Hope Act, Kansas’ nation leading welfare reform bill passed during the 2015 session. Among the several additional proposals was a cross-check of lottery winners receiving cash, food assistance or child care. The proposal would allow DCF to cross-check lottery winners who win $10,000 or more with welfare recipient lists. Winners would also be required to verify their income and resources.

Other proposals include verifying the identity of all people living in a household receiving cash, food and child care assistance. Current law only requires verification of identity for the person applying for the entire household. Another proposal would require the monitoring of persons who have lost their electronic benefits card numerous times. These new proposals will be added to last year’s welfare reform and the policy changes it ordered.

The results of Kansas’ welfare reform speak for themselves. Since implementation, able-bodied adults saw their income rise by 127% within a year of leaving food stamps. Half of those adults cycled off of food stamps within three months of being in the program. Time and again it has been shown the best way to get out of poverty is a job and the restoration of work requirements have brought these folks back into the workforce.

Unemployment Rate
Kansans are getting back to work!  A report released by the Department of Labor on Friday showed the unemployment rate for December 2015 stood at 3.9 percent, which was a drop from the 4.2% reported in November 2015. “Significant growth in health care and social assistance jobs and continued growth in construction contributed to an overall gain of 1,800 private sector jobs for Kansas in December,” said Emilie Doerksen, Labor Economist, Kansas Department of Labor.

More specifics on the Department of Labor report can be found at the Kansas Department of Labor website. The January labor report will be released by the department on March 4th.

Thank You!
Thank you for reading this week’s newsletter, and I appreciate everyone who has given me feedback on the various issues we face.