Kansas Supreme Court: Making law, part 3

Do the justices on the Kansas Supreme Court make new law? Yes, and here is another example.

A paper by Kansas University School of Law Professor Stephen J. Ware explains the problem with the undemocratic method of judicial selection process used in Kansas.1

The question is whether judges are simply arbitrators of the law, or do they actually participate in the lawmaking process? In his paper, Ware presents eleven examples of judges on the two highest Kansas courts engaging in lawmaking. Here, Ware explains one case:2

May a convicted criminal defendant pursue a legal malpractice action against this criminal-defense attorney without first obtaining any post-conviction relief? No, he may not, the Kansas Supreme Court held in Canaan v. Bartee, adopting what is known as the “exoneration rule.” In so holding, the Kansas Supreme Court acknowledged that it was making law. The Canaan court said that “Whether a plaintiff must be exonerated in postconviction proceedings before bringing a legal malpractice action against his criminal defense attorney is an issue of first impression in Kansas.” The court discussed earlier Kansas cases and concluded that they did not resolve the issue: “Thus, we are left to decide whether we will apply the exoneration rule in legal malpractice actions in Kansas.”

The Canaan court reviewed decisions from courts around the country and noted that most adopted the exoneration rule but some did not. The court also summarized what it candidly called “Policy Reasons Behind the Exoneration Rule.” The Canaan court’s punchline was: “After consideration of these authorities, the varying policy justifications, and the shortcomings of the various approaches, we find the majority view persuasive. We hold that before Canaan may sue his attorneys for legal malpractice he must obtain postconviction relief.”

Who considered “varying policy justifications” in deciding what Kansas law should be? Was it the Kansas Legislature? No, it was the judges on the Kansas Supreme Court did. As in all the examples discussed above, when it comes to the exoneration rule Kansas law is what it is because high court judges chose for that to be law based on what they considered “persuasive.” (emphasis added)

For more on this topic, see As lawmakers, Kansas judges should be selected democratically: While many believe that judges should not “legislate from the bench,” the reality is that lawmaking is a judicial function. In a democracy, lawmakers should be elected under the principle of “one person, one vote.” But Kansas, which uses the Missouri Plan for judicial selection to its highest court, violates this principle.


Notes

  1. Ware, Stephen J. Originalism, Balanced Legal Realism and Judicial Selection: A Case Study. Available at papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2129265.
  2. Id. at 31.

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