Nominating panel member raises funds to help Kansas justices

(Chris Neal/The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP File)
(Chris Neal/The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP File)

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — An attorney serving on a commission that screens applicants for the Kansas Supreme Court is helping raise funds for a campaign to keep justices on the bench in next week’s election.

Topeka attorney Natalie Haag confirmed her role in campaigning to keep the justices on the bench Wednesday as supporters and critics of the state’s Supreme Court make their final arguments this week to voters. The high-stakes election issue could give conservative Republican Gov. Sam Brownback the power to remake the state’s high court as it decides appeals on school finance and abortion restrictions.

Five of the seven Kansas Supreme Court justices are on the ballot. Four justices who were appointed by Brownback’s predecessors have been targeted for ouster by GOP conservatives, abortion opponents and critics of the court’s rulings on death penalty cases.

Haag, who was elected to the Supreme Court Nominating Commission in 2011 by fellow attorneys, said she’s sent hundreds of fundraising emails backing the justices to lawyers and acquaintances for Kansans for Fair Courts, which is spearheading the campaign to keep the justices.

She said she advocates retaining all the justices “because the process worked.”

“I believe it produces good judges who provide fair and impartial opinions,” Haag said.

Kansans for Fair Courts has been running a television ad warning that removing the justices could leave the court with “Brownback clones,” because the governor could name replacements.

Under the Kansas Constitution, the nine-member commission recommends three judicial candidates to the governor for selection. Brownback appoints four of the commission’s members, and the other five are attorneys picked by other lawyers.

The push to throw out the court’s majority got some help Wednesday from the family of Jodi Sanderholm, an Arkansas City woman killed in 2006. Justin Thurber was sentenced to death in her slaying, and his appeal has not yet been heard.

“My fear is that these judges are going to overturn his death sentence,” the victim’s sister, Jennifer Aldridge, said.

Sanderholm’s family joined the ouster efforts of Kansans for Justice, a group of victims’ families angered by court rulings that overturned death sentences. The nonpartisan group formed after the court’s 2014 decision overturning death sentences for Jonathan and Reginald Carr. The brothers were sentenced to die for sexually torturing, robbing and killing four people in Wichita in December 2000. The group’s president, Amy James, was dating one of the victims at the time.

Education advocates gathered Tuesday on the steps of Johnson County’s courthouse in support of retaining all Supreme Court and state Court of Appeals members on the ballot. Judith Deedy, executive director of the parent advocacy group Game On, said they have watched as Brownback and his allies in the Legislature “complained bitterly” about rulings to adequately fund public education.

“As parents, we are grateful to have one branch of government that can’t be bought or bullied,” Deedy said.

Brownback’s Road Map PAC donated $65,000 to Kansans for Life in September and October, according to its latest campaign finance report. The anti-abortion group’s executive director confirmed that the money would go toward its campaign to remove the justices, a detail the Wichita Eagle first reported.

The governor supported a similar campaign in 2014 that unsuccessfully tried to remove two other justices.

Haag served as chief counsel to moderate GOP Gov. Bill Graves, who appointed two of the targeted court members, Chief Justice Lawton Nuss and Justice Marla Luckert.

The other targeted court members are Justices Carol Beier and Dan Biles, both appointees of Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. The fifth justice on the ballot, Caleb Stegall, is Brownback’s only appointee and is not a target.

With one fundraising email earlier this spring, Haag attached copies of a prospectus and brochure for Kansans for Fair Courts. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the email, which said the goal was to raise $500,000 by the end of June.

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