Today’s Wichita Eagle contains an article about Kansas Supreme Court Justices and their retention elections. These elections, where voters are asked whether a judge should remain a member of the court, represent the primary way that ordinary Kansans participate in the selection of who sits on our state’s highest court and appeals court.
The Eagle article focuses on Justice Carol Beier and the campaign against her retention by Kansans For Life. The issue here is that Beier rules in ways that Kansans For Life doesn’t like. That’s a political issue, and voters can make up their minds as to whether Beier’s votes represent their interests.
Missing from the article is mention of an issue surrounding Chief Justice Lawton Nuss that doesn’t have anything to do with politics, but rather his official conduct on the bench.
Here’s how the Kansas Commission on Judicial Performance described one issue: “In 2006, Justice Nuss self-reported a potential ethical violation to the Commission on Judicial Qualifications. A subsequent investigation of this incident resulted in a finding that Justice Nuss had violated the Code of Judicial Conduct by having an ex parte conversation relating to a pending proceeding. The Commission on Judicial Qualifications subsequently admonished Justice Nuss for his conduct in the matter and ordered him to cease and desist from future similar activity.”
The admonishment resulted from an improper meeting with two legislators, according to Lawrence Journal-World reporting: “The Commission on Judicial Qualifications said Nuss violated three Canons of Judicial Conduct when he spoke with Sens. Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, and Pete Brungardt, R-Salina, about a school finance bill while school finance litigation was still pending before the court. In its commentary, the commission said Nuss’ meeting on March 1 ‘resulted in the appearance of impropriety which undermines public confidence in the judiciary …'”
The article also noted this breakthrough accomplishment of Nuss: “It is the first time in Kansas history that a state Supreme Court judge has been found in violation of the judicial ethics rules.”
There was another ethics issue involving Nuss and this case that didn’t result in admonishment or any other sanction. Before joining the Supreme Court, Nuss worked for a law firm that represented a school district that sued the state as part of the Montoy school finance lawsuit. I contended that Nuss should have recused himself from the proceedings. See The ethics case against Justice Lawton R. Nuss.
Karl Peterjohn, at that time executive director of the Kansas Taxpayers Network, wrote: “If you were being sued, and as a taxpayer you are, would you like to face Justice Lawton Nuss, who used to represent your legal challenger? Nuss was in the law firm that represents the lead plaintiff, the Salina public school district, until he joined the court in October 2002.”
These are the types of issues that Kansans need to know about as they vote on whether to retain Kansas Supreme Court justices.