Kansas bill to impeach top court judges advances in Senate; would allow impeachment of governor, too
TOPEKA — The Kansas Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a bill Thursday that spells out actions that could justify impeaching a Supreme Court justice or other constitutional officer, including attempting to usurp the power of another branch of government.
And while some supporters of the bill said it is not related to any single case, others argued it is clearly an expression of resentment over the Supreme Court's decisions in school finance litigation, where the court has recently threatened to close public schools if lawmakers do not pass a constitutional school funding mechanism by July 1.
Sen. Pat Petty, D-Kansas City, noted that the first person who testified for the bill during hearings last week, Sen. Mitch Holmes, R-St. John, one of the sponsors of the bill, specifically mentioned the school finance cases as one of the reasons he thinks the bill is necessary.
"So I can't see how we wouldn't think that is the case," she said.
The Kansas Constitution allows for removal of justices and other constitutional officers if they are impeached and convicted of "treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors."
Senate Bill 439 spells out examples of actions that could constitute high crimes and misdemeanors, including several actions that are not a violation of any law.
In addition to attempting to usurp the power of the legislative or executive branches, the bill would allow justices to be impeached for "exhibiting discourteous conduct toward litigants" or exhibiting "personal misbehavior or misconduct."
It would also allow for impeachment of the governor or other executive branch constitutional officers for personal misbehavior or "exhibiting discourteous conduct toward persons with whom the officer deals in an official capacity."
Sen. Forrest Knox, R-Altoona, said he believes it is important to classify those kinds of actions as impeachable offenses.
"We’ve arrived at a point today, in this country and this state, where specifically Supreme Court justices have become kings, where there is no check," Knox said.
"We’re not talking about indictable offenses," he said. "If a Supreme Court justice murders somebody, that will be dealt with. We’re talking political crimes. We’re talking things that are not in the statutes, expectations that the pubic has on a governor, on these constitutional offices."
But committee chairman Jeff King, R-Independence, said he opposed the bill for that very reason.
He noted that two years ago, the Legislature passed a law that changed the way district court chief judges were chosen, a law the Supreme Court recently struck down as unconstitutional because it usurped the Supreme Court's own constitutional authority to administer the judicial branch of government.
"If the Supreme Court had impeachment ability over the Legislature the way it’s stated in Senate Bill 439," he said, "the Supreme Court could have started impeachment proceedings against every single person that voted on that bill in good conscience and good faith, exercising their duties to the best of their ability just because of how we voted."
The impeachment bill is only the latest example of legislation introduced this year that illustrates growing tension between the Legislature and the judiciary.
Last month, the House voted on a proposed constitutional amendment that would have given the governor authority to name Supreme Court justices directly, subject to Senate confirmation. That measure failed to receive the necessary two-thirds majority vote.
King himself has introduced a bill, responding to the court's decision on separation of powers, that would effectively hand back to the Supreme Court all responsibility for administering lower courts, including setting salaries of lower court judges and assessing docket fees.
Testifying before a House committee in support of that bill earlier in the week, King acknowledged relations between the Legislature and judiciary are "not particularly good," but he said his bill was an attempt to restore the separation of powers.
But Rep. Les Osterman, R-Wichita, said he thinks it's the Supreme Court that has crossed the line.
"When they tell you a dollar amount that you have to come up with for funding for a certain project, that's encroachment into the Legislature's power," he said. "Now you're asking me to separate powers, and it's kind of hard for me to do that when I see them encroaching into what I consider my turf, or my territory."
Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City, tried unsuccessfully to table the impeachment bill. He said he attended the Supreme Court's recent special session held at Topeka High School, and he said the people he talked with there were not in favor of the proposal.
"This is an issue that has resonated with many Kansans," he said.
The impeachment bill now goes to the full Senate for consideration.