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Changing Kansas Supreme Court faces wary GOP-led Legislature

Kansas’ new chief justice plans to push for changes aimed at helping veterans and the mentally ill, and expects to press for a big budget increase from a Republican-controlled Legislature that’s likely to remain sharply critical of the state Supreme Court.

Chief Justice Marla Luckert became the Kansas court system’s top official — and the second woman to hold the job — upon former Chief Justice Lawton Nuss’ retirement last week. Her promotion came a day after Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly made her first appointment to the seven-member court, and Kelly is set to make another by mid-March.

Luckert, 64, said during an Associated Press interview that she wants the state to expand special courts to handle criminal cases involving veterans, drug offenders and the mentally ill to focus more on treating their underlying problems.

Legislators and other court watchers don’t expect a philosophical shift in the high court, which in recent years forcedlawmakers to boost spending on public schools and ruled in April in favor of abortion rights. For many Republicans, that’s a bad thing, and they’re pursuing changes to overturn the court on abortion and allow legislators to block justices’ appointments.

Tension is likely to remain with the filing of a lawsuit Friday by six trial court judges against the Legislature, arguing that lawmakers have violated the state constitution by chronically underfunding the judiciary. Luckert said before the lawsuit’s filing that she has been troubled by public attacks on the court, which have grown more frequent and harsher since she became a justice.

“Our job really is to be that stopgap where sometimes popular opinion conflicts with our constitutional rights,” she said. “It seems that there is a sort of inability to move past that and to engage in constructive conversation at times, but I don’t think it has to be that way.”

Luckert was appointed to the state Supreme Court in January 2003 by moderate Republican Gov. Bill Graves after serving as a district judge in Shawnee County for 11 years.

The high court already has proposed a 12 percent increase in the judiciary’s funding, an additional $18 million, mostly to boost salaries. Luckert called the proposal “the tip of the iceberg” because she believes the state needs to put more funding into programs aimed at keeping defendants from becoming repeat offenders.

She also sees expanding special courts as crucial. Kansas has two dozen speciality courts in 17 of its 105 counties.

“Other states are seeing incredible results,” Luckert said.

Luckert will be joined on the high court by Evelyn Wilson, a district judge in Shawnee County since 2004. Kansans for Life, the state’s most influential anti-abortion group, opposed Wilson’s appointment because of past contributions by her husband to Kelly and other abortion rights candidates.

Legislators have no oversight over Supreme Court appointments and many Republicans want to require Senate confirmation, believing it would prevent governors from appointing justices that are too liberal in their eyes.

“Democrats appoint activists,” said Senate President Susan Wagle, a conservative Wichita Republican and frequent Kelly critic who’s running for the U.S. Senate. “We feel like they’re encroaching on our authority.”

Kelly said she doesn’t have “an ideological litmus test” for Supreme Court nominees. She said Wilson’s trial court experience and her past work as a western Kansas lawyer were important.

“I really am looking for the best judicial minds, the best judicial temperament and the best representation of Kansans as a whole,” Kelly said.

Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita attorney and the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said he believes Kelly is making appointments without regard to how potential justices might rule in cases.

But he added: “If we elect a governor with the beliefs of Laura Kelly, I would expect that she would appoint judges who are of the same vein, and in fact, were she to do otherwise, I’m not sure she would be fully representing the people who elected her.”

Luckert said she worries legislators expect the courts to heed the same political considerations they do.

“I really do think that many of them are trying to make the courts be political creatures, which is contrary to the entire concept that our founders established, not only nationally but at the state level,” she said.

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