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Conservative Groups Gather Momentum To Change States' Judicial Elections


This has been a bruising campaign, hasn't it? And we've seen many on the right who feel a liberal movement has led for too long. We are not talking about the presidential election. This is another political fight in the state of Kansas. Here's Sam Zeff from member station KCUR.

SAM ZEFF, BYLINE: The looming political fight in Kansas is over some public officials who most voters don't even know. Specifically, four of the state's seven Supreme Court justices. The unhappiness conservatives in the state have for the Supreme Court goes back a decade, though their anger hit a fever pitch this year.

They've launched a boot-them-off-the-bench effort coordinated by Gov. Sam Brownback, conservatives and Koch brother's interests. University of Kansas political scientist Burdett Loomis says he's never seen anything like it.

BURDETT LOOMIS: What we're going to see in November, without a doubt, we are going to see a tremendous amount of money spent on judicial elections, retention elections in Kansas.

ZEFF: While 21 states, including Pennsylvania, Alabama and Minnesota, elect their Supreme Courts, Kansas uses a merit selection committee that nominates three candidates and the governor appoints from that list. Every six years, they stand for what's called retention, a simple yes or no vote on whether they should keep their job.

Since the system was created 60 years ago, no justice has ever not been retained or, in essence, fired by the people. Some conservatives here have said for years that the court is too liberal, that it legislates from the bench. Republican State Senator Mitch Holmes is from rural, central Kansas.


MITCH HOLMES: We all know the phrase power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. That's what this is about.

ZEFF: He's arguing for a bill that would make it easier to impeach high court justices. In addition to making it easier to impeach a justice, lawmakers attempted to defund the court system and take away some administrative power from the chief justice. None of those efforts have succeeded, so conservatives are banking on the ballot box.

MARY CULP: Mary Kay Culp, three words - M-A-R-Y, K-A-Y, C-U-L-P. I'm the state executive director of Kansans for Life.

ZEFF: Right now it appears there's is a three-pronged attack forming for the November retention elections. Kansans for Life will be a leader among social conservatives. Politicians in both parties expect Koch-supported groups to pour money into the campaign.

And the Kansas Republican Party will probably help coordinate. Culp calls it a perfect political storm for conservatives.

KAY CULP: We pass laws, serious laws that people really care about. And then you go to the courts and they say, sorry. It's like pulling the rug out from under you after you've passed these laws.

ZEFF: A tax on state Supreme Courts are not limited to Kansas. Spending on Supreme Court elections has skyrocketed in recent years. There have been brutal Supreme Court fights in Iowa, Wisconsin, and one is now underway in Arkansas. In Kansas, conservatives could spend more than half a million dollars.

RYAN WRIGHT: We have three branches of government in this state, not two branches and a twig.

ZEFF: Ryan Wright runs Kansans for Fair Courts, the group running the campaign supporting the justices. "Because this is not a partisan election," says Wright, "the justices can't defend themselves." And that's where his group steps in.

WRIGHT: They're not equipped to have a fair fight because they're not politicians. That's by design. We don't want our judges to be politicians.

ZEFF: While much of America hears about presidential politics, Kansas voters will also soon be inundated with postcards, TV ads and radio spots about four people they're just now getting to know. For NPR News, I'm Sam Zeff in Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sam grew up in Overland Park and was educated at the University of Kansas. After working in Philadelphia where he covered organized crime, politics and political corruption he moved on to TV news management jobs in Minneapolis and St. Louis. Sam came home in 2013 and covered health care and education at KCPT. He came to work at KCUR in 2014. Sam has a national news and documentary Emmy for an investigation into the federal Bureau of Prisons and how it puts unescorted inmates on Grayhound and Trailways buses to move them to different prisons. Sam has one son and is pretty good in the kitchen.
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