Kansas Supreme Court to take up cases fueling ouster efforts

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Now that Kansas voters have decided against removing any state Supreme Court justices, the court will turn its attention to cases involving education funding, capital punishment and abortion that led critics to try to remake the court.

Efforts to remove four of the seven justices started with critics of past rulings that overturned death sentences in capital murder cases. The justices plan to hear arguments in December in the case of a man sentenced to die for killing his estranged wife and three other family members in northeastern Kansas.

Abortion opponents and conservative Republicans also wanted to remove the justices ahead of major rulings on abortion and school funding cases. The court has yet to hear the abortion case, but a ruling on education funding is expected by early next year.

A look at the ouster effort and major cases before the Supreme Court:

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JUSTICES TO STAY

The court’s critics targeted Chief Justice Lawton Nuss and Justices Marla Luckert, Carol Beier and Dan Biles for removal in statewide yes-or-no votes to determine whether they should remain for another six years. They were appointed by moderate GOP or Democratic predecessors of conservative Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.

Brownback’s only appointee, Justice Caleb Stegall, also was on the ballot but wasn’t a target.

Voters retained all five.

Nuss said in a post-election interview that the ouster efforts would not influence the court and that its rulings would continue to be “based on the rule of law and the constitution.”

“If you were in a lawsuit, would you want a judge who was influenced by anything other than what the law requires?” Nuss said.

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SCHOOL FUNDING

The high court heard arguments in September on whether the state’s $4.1 billion a year in aid to its 286 school districts is adequate.

Four school districts sued the state in 2010. They argue that legislators must spend roughly $800 million more a year to fulfill their duty under the Kansas Constitution to finance a suitable education for every child.

Republican legislators slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at Brownback’s urging in an effort to stimulate the economy. The state has struggled to balance its budget since.

Kansas also is bedeviled by slumps in agriculture and energy production. It faces a $349 million shortfall in its current budget.

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CAPITAL PUNISHMENT

Kansas reinstated capital punishment in 1994 but has yet to set any execution dates. The state Supreme Court overturned the first seven death sentences it reviewed.

Since December 2015, the Kansas Supreme Court has upheld three other men’s death sentences.

Next month, the justices plan to hear the appeal of James Kraig Kahler, who was convicted of shooting his estranged wife, their two teenage daughters and her grandmother at the grandmother’s home outside Burlingame in 2009.

Another six capital cases are still before the court.

“I do believe that they know that people are watching,” said Amy James, a founder of Kansans for Justice, an anti-retention group formed my murder victims’ family members.

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ABORTION LAWSUIT

The abortion case before the court is a lawsuit filed by two doctors who are challenging a first-in-the-nation ban on a common second-trimester procedure that was enacted in 2015.

A Shawnee County judge temporarily blocked its enforcement and ruled that the state constitution protects abortion rights independently of the U.S. Constitution.

Abortion opponents fear that if his ruling stands, the state courts could reject restrictions even if they’ve been upheld by the federal courts.

The Kansas Court of Appeals split 7-7 on the state constitutional issue.

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