The fight over Kansas' appeals courts will have a new front next year as lawmakers take up legislation to lower the retirement age for appellate judges in the state.
Legislation proposed by state House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lance Kinzer (R-Olathe) would lower the retirement age for state Court of Appeals judges and state Supreme Court justices from 75 to 65, the lowest in the nation. Under the legislation, which is slated to be taken up by a state House committee when lawmakers reconvene in January, trial court judges' age for retirement would remain unchanged at 75. Kinzer's bill is one of a series of measures that conservative Republicans have pushed to gain greater power over appellate courts.
"It is coming from the ability of the governor to appoint people," state Rep. Barbara Bollier (R-Mission Hills), a moderate Republican who opposes the bill. "He wants to appoint more judges. That is my opinion."
Earlier this year, lawmakers and Gov. Sam Brownback (R) approved a measure that allows the governor to nominate his choice to the Court of Appeals, with state Senate confirmation. He does not have to pick from a list provided by a judicial nominating commission. The commission still submits Supreme Court candidates, though.
Conservative Republicans in Kansas have long complained that the state's appellate courts have been making policy. The judicial selection issue was a top one in last year's GOP primary battle when conservative Republicans grabbed control of the state Senate from moderate Republicans. Moderate Republicans have accused the conservatives of wanting to turn Kansas into an "ultraconservative utopia."
Under Kinzer's proposal, all appellate judges would retire when they turned 65; the current rules allow them to retire when they complete the term they are serving following their 75th birthday. The proposal would continue to give district court judges the option to serve until they complete their term after their 75th birthday. University of Kansas political science professor Burdett Loomis said it is clear why the elected district court judges are given more time.
"District courts don't make policy and a lot of district court judges are popular in their own areas," Loomis said. "They want to gain control of the policy making bodies."
Kinzer did not return multiple calls for comment. A Brownback spokeswoman said the governor will review the bill if it reaches his desk.
A review of the ages of the appellate judges shows that if the bill passed, four Court of Appeals judges and one Supreme Court justice would leave office when it takes effect in 2014. An additional three Court of Appeals judges and three Supreme Court justices would reach 65 by 2018, which would be the end of Brownback's second term if the Republican is reelected next year. A spokesman for the Kansas Office of Judicial Administration said the office did not have a comment on the proposal.
Bill Raftery, an analyst for the National Center for State Courts, said that judicial retirement ages were put in place more than a century ago to allow for a way to ease out judges who were not up to the demands of the job due to age. He said the Kansas proposal goes against a national trend to either do away with judicial retirement ages or raise them.
The bill will not be heard in the House Judiciary Committee, which typically handles judicial issues, but rather in the Federal and State Affairs Committee. Bollier said she believes the switch was made since Federal and State has more conservative members. Federal and State typically handles bills related to abortion, sex, guns, gambling and alcohol, and has been referred to by Topeka insiders as the, "God, guns and gays committee."
"Anything they want to pass will go through that committee," Bollier said.
Bollier's accusation is not new. Last year, then state Rep. Sean Gatewood (D-Topeka), a Fed and State member, told HuffPost that a resolution opposing the United Nations sustainability agenda was moved to the panel "so it would pass."
While the Federal and State committee may be more conservative, not all GOP committee members are on board with the idea. State Rep. J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) told HuffPost that while he agrees with changing the courts, he doesn't believe it should be done via a mandatory retirement.
"I don't like the idea that they are limited by age," Claeys said. "I like what he is trying to accomplish. I don't like the premise of term limits via an age limit."
CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, Bill Raftery's name was misspelled, and he was misquoted. He told The Huffington Post that the Kansas proposal goes against a national trend to either do away with judicial retirement ages or raise them.