Kansas Supreme Court: Selecting Judges

While many believe that judges should not “legislate from the bench,” that is, make law themselves, the reality is that lawmaking is a judicial function.

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

At issue is whether judges are simply arbitrators of the law, or do they actually participate in the lawmaking process. Ware presents eleven examples of judges on the two highest Kansas courts engaging in lawmaking. In one, a workers’ compensation case, the employee would lose his appeal if the “clear” precedent was followed. Justice Carol A. Beier wrote the opinion. Ware explains:

But this is not, in fact, what Justice Beier and her colleagues on the Kansas Supreme Court did. Rather they did what Kansas Judges Greene and Russell say never happens. Justice Beier and her colleagues engaged in lawmaking. They changed the legal rule from one contrary to their ideologies to one consistent with their ideologies.

Justice Beier’s opinion doing this started by criticizing the old rule, while acknowledging that it was, in fact, the rule prior to her opinion by which the Supreme Court made new law. Here again is the above quote from Coleman, but now with the formerly omitted words restored and italicized: “The rule is clear, if a bit decrepit and unpopular: An injury from horseplay does not arise out of employment and is not compensable unless the employer was aware of the activity or it had become a habit at the workplace.”

Who decided that this rule is “decrepit and unpopular” and so should be changed? Was it the Kansas Legislature? No, it was the Kansas Supreme Court. It was judges, not legislators, who decided that this legal rule was bad policy. It was judges, not legislators, who changed the law to bring it in line with what the lawmaking judges thought was good policy.

Beier wrote in her opinion: “We are clearly convinced here that our old rule should be abandoned. Although appropriate for the time in which it arose, we are persuaded by the overwhelming weight of contrary authority in our sister states and current legal commentary.”

The result: New Kansas law, made by people selected through an undemocratic process.2

In conclusion, Ware writes:

Non-lawyers who believe in the principle that lawmakers should be selected democratically need to know that judicial selection is lawmaker selection to be troubled by the Missouri Plan’s violation of this principle. Non-lawyers who do not know that judges inevitably make law may believe that the role of a judge consists only of its professional/technical side and, therefore, believe that judges should be selected entirely on their professional competence and ethics and that assessments of these factors are best left to lawyers. In short, a lawyer who omits lawmaking from a published statement about the judicial role is furthering a misimpression that helps empower lawyers at the expense of non-lawyers, in violation of basic democratic equality, the principle of one-person, one-vote.

(In the Kansas version of the Missouri Plan, a nominating commission dominated by lawyers selects three candidates to fill an opening on the Kansas Supreme Court. The governor then selects one of the three. This process gives members of the state’s bar tremendous power in selecting judges.)

By the way: For those who criticize the support for judicial selection reform as partisan politics — since Kansas has a conservative governor — remember this: When Professor Ware first sounded the need for judicial selection reform, our governor was the liberal Kathleen Sebelius. There was also a liberal senate at that time, one which would undoubtedly have approved any nominee Sebelius might have sent for confirmation.

Originalism, Balanced Legal Realism and Judicial Selection: A Case Study
By Stephen J. Ware

Abstract: The “balanced realist” view that judging inevitably involves lawmaking is widely accepted, even among originalists, such as Justice Scalia, Randy Barnett and Steven Calabresi. Yet many lawyers are still reluctant to acknowledge publicly the inevitability of judicial lawmaking. This reluctance is especially common in debates over the Missouri Plan, a method of judicial selection that divides the power to appoint judges between the governor and the bar.

The Missouri Plan is one of three widely-used methods of selecting state court judges. The other two are: (1) direct election of judges by the citizenry, and (2) appointment of judges by democratically elected officials, typically the governor and legislature, with little or no role for the bar. Each of these two methods of judicial selection respects a democratic society’s basic equality among citizens — the principle of one-person, one-vote. In contrast, the Missouri Plan violates this principle by making a lawyer’s vote worth more than another citizen’s vote.

This Article provides a case study of the clash between the inevitability of judicial lawmaking and the reluctance of lawyers to acknowledge this inevitability while defending their disproportionate power under the Missouri Plan. The Article documents efforts by lawyers in one state, Kansas, to defend their version of the Missouri Plan by attempting to conceal from the public the fact that Kansas judges, like judges in the other 49 states, inevitably make law. The case study then shows examples of Kansas judges making law. The Article concludes that honesty requires lawyers participating in the debate over judicial selection in the United States to forthrightly acknowledge that judges make law. Lawyers who seek to defend the power advantage the Missouri Plan gives them over other citizens can honestly acknowledge that this is a power advantage in the selection of lawmakers and then explain why they believe a departure from the principle of one-person, one-vote is justified in the selection of these particular lawmakers.

The complete paper may be downloaded at no charge here.


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. Ware, Stephen J. Selection to the Kansas Supreme Court. Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies. Available at www.fed-soc.org/publications/detail/selection-to-the-kansas-supreme-court.

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