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How to make an informed decision when voting for judges in Kansas

Kansas Supreme Court

Several judges from the Kansas Supreme Court and Court of Appeals face retention votes this November.

When voters head to the polls on Tuesday, Nov. 8, they’ll encounter a slew of down-ballot names they’ve likely never heard of: judges standing for retention.

In Kansas, 75 judges are on the ballot statewide.

Are these retention votes really important?

“Vitally important,” according to Larry Tucker, senior counsel at the Armstrong Teasdale law firm and a former president of the Missouri Bar.

“So much of the state’s business and so much of the interest that we have as citizens of the state of Missouri come before the courts,” Tuckertold Up to Date’s Steve Kraske in 2018. “We want the very best, the most efficient, the fairest, the most impartial people we can have.”

Kansas has a nonpartisan merit selection system, although parts of the state still elect judges to office.

In Kansas, when there’s a vacancy in a trial court — known as District Courts — a judicial nominating commission consisting of lawyers and non-lawyers who live in the district chooses a list of candidates and submits them to the governor, who then makes the selection. Those judges must stand for retention after their first year in office, and then again every four years.

Similarly, Kansas Supreme Court judges are selected by the governor from a list of three candidates provided by a judicial nominating commission consisting of five lawyers and four non-lawyers.

Like District Court judges, they, too, must stand for retention after their first year in office. After that, each of the seven Supreme Court judges stands for retention every six years.

Kansas’ 14 Court of Appeals judges are selected differently due to a change in the law in 2013. The governor is free to nominate any licensed attorney between the ages of 30 and 70. The nomination is then subject to confirmation by the Kansas Senate.

Court of Appeals judges stand for retention after their first year in office and every four years thereafter.

“Kansans believe judges should be independent of politics as much as possible,” Greg Musil, an Overland Park lawyer who has been active in promoting judicial merit selection in Kansas, said on Up to Date. “It's not 100% ever because human beings are political animals, but (we) do it as best we can.”

Since most voters have little interaction with the courts, how can they be expected to cast an informed vote?

If you’re voting in Johnson County, where 14 District Court and District Magistrate judges are up for retention this year, you can go to the Johnson County Bar Association’s website, and view a survey returned by lawyers who evaluated the judges. (Judges in Wyandotte County are chosen in partisan elections.)

The survey also includes evaluations of the six Kansas Supreme Court judges up for retention this year, and the six Kansas Court of Appeals judges up for retention.

Beyond checking the survey, Musil recommends that voters talk to their attorney friends.

“They practice or know somebody that practices in front of a judge, and that's probably the best way to find out whether that judge should be retained or not,” Musil said.

Below are the names of Kansas judges up for retention, with links to their biographies.

Kansas Supreme Court judges up for retention:

Kansas Court of Appeals judges up for retention:

Johnson County District Court judges up for retention:

Copyright 2022 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Dan Margolies is editor in charge of health news at KCUR, the public radio station in Kansas City. Dan joined KCUR in April 2014. In a long and varied journalism career, he has worked as a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star and Reuters. In a previous life, he was a lawyer. He has also worked as a media insurance underwriter and project development director for a video production firm.