First, Governor Colyer is Kansas’ 47th, and the issues that deal with Pardons and Extraditions have been dealt with by Kansas Governors from day one. My attorney dealing with this area (memory says I had two in my eight years) spent a lot of time dealing with the huge number of requests put together by, almost without exception, jailhouse lawyers. This work gave some prisoners something to do and they were not without talent. The problem was they didn’t have the evidence to make the case. In my time, I dealt with thousands of requests and appreciated the quality of my legal team making sure there was no justification to approve the request. After eight years, I only responded positively twice. The inmates were both lifers dying of cancer with 5 or 6 months to live. They were expensive for the state to incarcerate, and their families were willing to take care of them. I commuted their sentences to a level where they were immediately eligible for parole, allowing the Parole Board—if they agreed—to release them, which they did. The very small number of releases is a large credit to our judicial system, which was established to carry out fair and impartial justice by merit-based selection of judges.
That experience has not been the same in some other states. Arkansas is an excellent example of the opposite. Governor Huckabee issued something like 8,000 plus pardons in his tenure. Was Huckabee, of all people, just letting people go to reduce the prison population? Definitely not! He, in fact, was the court of last resort in a state where the whole judiciary was caught up in politics and money. Someone had to provide justice. Other Governors of Arkansas had similar experiences.
So where am I headed? It makes a difference whether judges are selected on merit or on political and money connections. Until the Brownback-Colyer administration, Kansas had a judicial system pretty much free of politics and money. But all that has begun to change. Because the Court of Appeals Justices are not protected by the state constitution, it allowed Brownback-Colyer to successfully press the legislature to make those appointments directly by the Governor. So far, the attacks on our Supreme Court Justices have failed because of the protection of the constitution and the supportive votes of citizens in retaining the five justices up for retention in 2016. But clearly, Governor Colyer is in the camp of wanting to change the constitution to not only allow direct Governor appointments but taking the court out of playing a balancing role in the funding of public education.
The elections in August and November will go a long way in determining whether Kansas goes the Arkansas way or we maintain our historical support of justice and respect for the third and equal branch of government. Think about this before you vote. This is not just another inside the ballpark discussion that in the end doesn’t make a difference. It does. And the impacts for better or worse fall on individuals and entities standing up for a fair and independent judiciary in Kansas.