As part of a two-day tour that included stops in Kansas City and Topeka, four former Kansas Governors were in Wichita on Wednesday, and they had strong opinions about conservative efforts to oust some Kansas Supreme Court justices.
The group, which includes Democrats Kathleen Sebelius and John Carlin and Republicans Bill Graves and Mike Hayden, is campaigning to raise awareness for fair and impartial courts in the state in response to what they say is "a series of unprecedented political attacks on the courts." They plan to campaign and to advocate for the state’s supreme court justices--five of whom are are facing retention elections this fall. At the same time, family members of those murdered by the Carr brothers in Wichita in December 2000 are campaigning to have four of the five justices removed.
Hayden, who was in office from 1987-1991, says the Kansas court's decision to overturn all but one death sentence each for Reginald and Jonathan Carr was based on the interpretation of legal standards.
“The Carr brothers are in prison. They have been in prison since they were arrested," Hayden says. "They’re going to stay in prison for the rest of their lives and it’s easy to misunderstand that perhaps the court may have turned these people loose inadvertently, which did not happen.”
Hayden explained that when an issue as serious as the death penalty is before the court, it's the justices' job to make sure that the law and the Constitution are properly followed.
"Because if you don't," he says, "there will be appeals and there will be technicalities where these cases can be overturned."
Sebelius echoed Hayden's statements.
"This is a conversation that's going on as part of an appellate process which is taking place in every state in the country and I think --I hope -- it's what most Kansans feel is appropriate. If you're going to exact the ultimate punishment of a state, if you are going to take someone's life, then you want to make sure that the law is correct, that the sentence is applied correctly," she says.
The governors say they object to the recent political and increasingly personal attacks on the court "by current Gov. Sam Brownback and his legislative allies."
The court has also been battling the state legislature over issues regarding the equity and adequacy of school funding. Three out of four of the former governors said they believe the death penalty discussion surrounding the Carr brothers’ case has been used as a backdoor way to "restack" the court based on school finance.
Hayden says he thinks there is an undercurrent of special interest groups working to basically stack the court to guarantee certain outcomes "irrespective of what the real exact interpretation of the law should otherwise allow."
"Whether it's a criminal case like the Carr case or whether it's any other controversial issue that [the court] may have had some involvement in deciding...I think there's a sentiment of, 'Well, let's just try to throw this group out and we'll take our chances with a whole entirely new class of judges...and hope that they will view and interpret public policy in a way more suited to our way of thinking.'"
Follow Abigail Beckman on Twitter @AbigailKMUW.
To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at email@example.com.