In 2016, you will see an unprecedented attack from the fundamentalist conservatives on the judicial branch of state government. The Kansas courts have served as a seawall, blocking the push of Brownback and his Kansas Leadership to further erode civil liberties, individual rights, our public education system, and many other fronts.
To be absolutely clear, in 2016 we need to protect the judicial branch of our state government, just as much as we need to advocate for our moderate values, work for moderate candidates, and turn the Kansas Legislature around.
Here is why the judicial branch is important:
- They are the last branch not beholden to Governor Brownback and his supporters. With the Executive branch his, and the Legislative branch secured since the fundamentalists swept everyone out in 2012, the Judicial branch has been the only stay to Brownback's plans. And even so, he has managed to plunge our state into financial bankruptcy, he has mortgaged our future on massive bond issues, and he has continued to chip away at our excellent public schools system, all while mismanaging Medicaid and threatening to do the same to Medicare.
- They have continued to protect our human and civil rights, including in women's reproductive health, gay rights, and every child's right to an adequate and equitable public education. Often, the courts are the only ones standing in the Governor's way, after moderate politicians in the Legislature have tried and fought and been beaten down by the Governor's allies.
Here is what Brownback and his legislative leadership are trying to do:
- Defund the court system. Last year, Brownback and the legislative Leadership passed a law tying the court budget to the outcome of a law declaring that the KS Supreme Court could no longer choose the chief justice of lower courts. If the Supreme Court ruled against this law, they would see their budged slashed. Of course, this law was declared unconstitutional, and now the Legislature is scrambling to remove the provision tying the budget to the ruling. The Kansas House has sheepishly passed this fix, but the Kansas Senate has stalled on making this right. More posturing by the legislative Leadership in their service to the Governor.
Make the independent judiciary political. In several small moves, the Governor is attempting to turn the Judicial branch, until now an independent voice, into yet another political arms of his rule. Plans are afoot to recall judges by election, to make elections partisan, to split the court, and to lower the retirement age (the better to be rid of judges he despises). You've already seen this in the 2014 election, when some of the judges who ruled in the Carr case were pilloried as "activist judges" (isn't that a tired phrase by now?) and groups like Kansans For Life actively campaigned against their retention. There will be more of that this year.
- Change how justices are selected. With a planned amendment to the Kansas Constitution, Brownback and his allies hope to make it even easier for the Governor to select his allies for the Kansas Supreme Court. As it stands now, the Supreme Court nominating commission is made of five lawyers, and four non-lawyers appointed by the Governor. The commission chooses three nominees who are passed to the Governor for his final selection. This was enough to get Caleb Stegall, a Brownback crony and former personal counsel with little judicial experience onto the Supreme Court. But to make it even easier, the constitutional amendment would put the selection in the hands of the Executive-controlled Legislature.
But these efforts are not limited to the Governor. Just last week, Kansans for Life held a training session on how to talk about judicial selection issues regarding the Kansas Courts. They are unequivocal about their goals: eliminate women's reproductive rights by abrogating the separation of powers and subjugating the judicial system to Brownback's will.
Similarly, Americans for Prosperity (AFP) is working to the same ends, but for different reasons. They see the public school system as a burden to their goals of zero government responsibility, and are working to eliminate the separation of power in our state government to get a green light to slash school funding as it has never been done before.
These forces, the Governor and his lobbyists, are working all out for this goal. It should be enough that they are working so hard to motivate us to counter them. But their goals are clear, and their energy seems endless.
In fact, they may be met by some surprising resistance. With all of the Kansas Legislature up for a vote in 2016, many lawmakers are hedging their stances, unsure of whether their constituents will send them back if they support this remarkably unpopular governor.
We must work to convince them, and the voters, that the integrity of our state government, the protection of the separation of powers, is paramount to the future of Kansas.