In the case before the court, the state alleged that both parents had repeatedly sexually abused their children, a three year old boy and a little girl, six. Now, the judge must decide what to do with them. He could sever parental rights. He could remand them to the custody of social services who would place them in foster care and perhaps put them up for adoption, or he could rule in favor of grandparents who were demanding custody. All parties were represented by attorneys including the children, represented by a court appointed lawyer. Mighty forces were at work to sway the judge’s judgment including personal friendships, money and political clout.
This begs the question: how do we choose judges. In some states, judges are required to run for election while in other states, they are appointed by the governor. Missouri copied the U.S. constitution. With confirmation by the state senate, the governor appoints a judge to a lifetime position.
We in Kansas use the merit system of selection. A nominating committee composed of four people appointed by the governor and five people appointed by the Kansas Bar association chooses and evaluates those seeking the judgeship. I can attest to the thoroughness of these investigations. In my volunteer capacity as a Court Appointed Special Advocate, (CASA) I worked with several of the people nominated and have been asked to give my opinion about their qualifications.
The committee then submits the names of three candidates to the governor who makes the final selection. After serving a short term, the judge must then stand for a retention election at the first general election and every six years after that.
Some time ago, a woman felt she had been treated unfairly by a judge and mounted a vigorous campaign to have him removed by the voters. Even though her efforts failed, she had the right to try. This has been the Kansas system for over fifty years and it has worked quite well.
But now, some newly elected officials including Governor Brownback, wish to do away with the merit system in order to benefit their ideology. The pitch, which comes in the form of a bill, proposes that judges become political appointees of the governor. Right now, the bill addresses only The Appeals Court judges but once that happens, it is a short step to including all judges.
Fortunately, some cool heads remain in the Kansas leadership and if the proposed bill doesn’t make it out of the Judiciary Committee, nothing will happen, at least for this year. My friend Tim Owens is the Senate Judiciary Committee Chair. Contact him before Wednesday the 23rd of March at: 785-296-7353 or 913-381-8711.
As for the two abused children whose lives rested in the hands of the Kansas Judge, he listened carefully to testimony from friends, relatives, psychiatrists, social workers, attorneys and me. Ultimately he ruled to sever parental rights. Right or wrong, his opinion was based on what he perceived to be in the childrens’ best interests, not on political pressure, money or friendship.
Note: The Honorable Bill Haynes was that exemplary juvenile court judge who handled that case. Sadly, he passed away several years ago.