TOPEKA, Kansas — A Shawnee County district judge was named Monday to one of the vacancies on the Kansas Supreme Court.
Though the state’s most prominent anti-abortion group opposed Shawnee County District Court Judge Evelyn Wilson, Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly Chose Wilson from among the three candidates recommended by the Supreme Court Nominating Commission. It’s a choice that could fuel efforts to change how Kansas’ Supreme Court justices get their seats.
Kelly said she picked Wilson based on her experience in both rural and urban areas.
“Judge Wilson brings something quintessentially Kansans to our highest court,” Kelly said. “She knows the struggles of both the family farmer and the corporate board of directors.”
Describing herself, Wilson said she tries to be calm and thoughtful on the bench.
“I learned that I must look at each and every case as an individual case,” she said. “I try to do justice within the parameters of the law and the facts before me.”
Wilson made enemies of the influential anti-abortion group Kansans for Life because of donations her husband made to candidates who support abortion rights.
Kansans for Life has advocated for moving to a system where the governor selects a nominee who is then confirmed by the state Senate. Republicans currently control that chamber. The push for changing the system intensified after the Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that the Kansas Constitution protects the right to abortion.
“This is yet another reason why we need to amend the Kansas Constitution,” Kansans for Life said in a statement, “and ensure that women and their babies can be protected by reasonable regulations on the abortion industry.”
Kelly said she evaluated the nominees on judicial temperament and experience.
“Ideology was really not part of the conversation with any of the nominees,” Kelly said.
Wilson replaces Justice Lee Johnson, who retired in September. The other two candidates were Deputy Kansas Attorney General Dennis Depew and state Assistant Solicitor General Steven Obermeier, both of whom work in the state attorney general’s office. In total, the nominating commission interviewed 19 candidates.
Kansas’s current nominating system dates to the late 1950s, and was done in response to a scandal. A lame-duck governor resigned and was then appointed to the Supreme Court by the new governor, who was only in office for 11 days. The scandal was known as the “triple play.”
Under the Kansas Constitution, the nominating commission made up of people selected by attorneys and the governor screen candidates for the court. Of the nine members, seven were already on the commission before Kelly took office.
Supporters of the current nominating process say the system keeps politics out and helps keep the court impartial.
The commission will meet again in January to pick candidates to replace retiring Chief Justice Lawton Nuss.
Stephen Koranda is Statehouse reporter for Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on Twitter @kprkoranda or email skoranda (at) ku (dot) edu.
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