TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The most influential anti-abortion group in Kansas politics is urging voters in mailers to remove five of the seven justices on a state Supreme Court that declared access to abortion a fundamental right under the state constitution.
The group, Kansans for Life, was a key part of the campaign for a proposed amendment to the state constitution to declare that it doesn’t grant a right to abortion, which would have nullified the court's 2019 decision protecting abortion rights. The amendment would have allowed the Republican-controlled Legislature to greatly restrict or ban abortion, but voters decisively rejected it in August.
The group's mailers list its recommendations to oust five justices but keep a sixth on the Nov. 8 ballot for yes-or-no votes on whether they stay on the Supreme Court for another six years. The group criticized the court long before the 2019 abortion ruling and has even opposed some potential appointees.
“There were a number of factors considered, including activist opinions issued by these justices throughout their careers, political giving history, and other information,” Kristina Smith, director of the Kansans For Life political action committee.
In supporting the proposed amendment, the group said on its website that in its 2019 decision, “an activist state Supreme Court radically changed the Kansas Constitution.”
Kansans for Life has for decades been influential within the state Republican Party, and its mailers advising voters of its endorsements are election year staples. Its latest mailers list its choices for federal, state and local races and started going out last week. The statement on the justices is the first public sign of organized opposition to them.
Abortion rights advocates had expected an ouster effort after the proposed amendment failed and have been campaigning to keep all of them for weeks. Since the U.S. Supreme Court decision in June striking down Roe v. Wade and allowing states to ban abortion, state Supreme Court races across the nation are more contentious and have become crucial for Democratic groups working to protect abortion rights.
But in Kansas, many advocates of retaining the justices argue that doing so will protect the state courts' independence and impartiality. The leading group in the campaign is Keep Kansas Courts Impartial; its campaign is backed by major legal groups, and it running television ads in the Kansas City, Wichita and Topeka markets.
“The Executive and Legislative branches are political by nature, which makes it critical that our Judicial branch remain impartial and free from political pressure, interest groups, or financial concerns,” Deanell Reece Tacha, a retired federal appeals court judge said in an endorsement statement this week.
Kansas Supreme Court justices are appointed by governors after a lawyer-majority panel screens applications, with no role for the Legislature. Justices ask voters to keep them on the court every six years, and no justice has been ousted from office in a such a vote.
Of the six court members on the ballot, Chief Justice Marla Luckert and Justice Dan Biles were in the 6-1 majority in the decision protecting abortion rights. Luckert was appointed by former Republican Gov. Bill Graves and Biles by former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. Those two governors have endorsed the pro-retention campaign, along with former Republican Mike Hayden and ex-Democratic Gov. John Carlin.
Three of the six justices on the ballot were appointed by current Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly after the 2019 decision. They are Justices Melissa Standridge, K.J. Wall and Evelyn Wilson.
Kansans for Life is working to keep Justice Caleb Stegall. He was appointed by former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and was the dissenter in the 2019 abortion ruling. The groups backing the other justices also want to keep Stegall on the court.
The only justice not on the ballot, Eric Rosen, appointed by Sebelius, doesn't face a retention vote until 2026.
Kansans for Life launched an unsuccessful “Reject all but Stegall” campaign in 2016, when five justices were on the ballot. It also had an unsuccessful “Fire Beier” campaign in 2010 against now-retired Justice Carol Beier.
“We've always assumed there would be opposition at some point," said Mike Swenson, spokesman for Keep Kansas Courts Impartial.
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John Hanna, The Associated Press