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Kansas gets a new Supreme Court justice, and probably a new front in the abortion war

Wichita eagle logo Wichita eagle 12/1/2020 Dion Lefler, The Wichita Eagle

Gov. Laura Kelly has named longtime appellate Judge Melissa Taylor Standridge to the Kansas Supreme Court, despite opposition from anti-abortion forces that could make picking Standridge’s replacement on the appeals court a political battle.

Standridge has served for the past 12 years as a judge on the Kansas Court of Appeals, where she authored nearly 1,000 opinions.

Before joining the appeals court, she was for nine years the chambers counsel to U.S. District Magistrate Judge David Waxse, who has since retired.

“There’s no question that Melissa has gathered a wealth of legal expertise that makes her more than prepared to join the Supreme Court,” Kelly said in a statement Monday announcing the appointment.

However, she said it’s Standridge’s personal and life experience that makes her “preeminently qualified” for a seat on the state’s highest court.

“As a foster and adoptive parent, she has firsthand experience navigating the system both as a judge, and as a foster parent to numerous youngsters, doing her best to provide security, stability and love to kids who sorely needed it,” Kelly said.

The influential anti-abortion group Kansans for Life opposed Standridge’s elevation to the high court because of her vote in an 2016 abortion case. She sided with six other appellate judges in asserting that the Kansas Constitution protects a woman’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy.

That case ended in a 7-7 tie at the appellate court.

The state Supreme Court ruled last year the right to an abortion is protected by the state Constitution.

That offers a layer of protection for it if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that has protected abortion rights nationally since 1973.

In a written statement, Kansans for Life said it was “extremely disappointed” by Kelly’s choice.

“Laura Kelly continues to stack state courts with appointees who will do the abortion industry’s bidding,” said Jeanne Gawdun, KFL’s director of government relations.

KFL also opposed the December 2019 appointment of Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Wilson, who was elevated from chief district court judge in Shawnee County.

Kelly’s appointment of Standridge leaves an open seat on the Court of Appeals, setting the stage for a fight in the Legislature over whomever Kelly tries to appoint to replace Standridge on the state’s second-highest court.

When the appellate seat comes up for appointment, “We will have more of an opportunity to find out more about these folks and their temperament and maybe what some of their biases are,” Gawdun told The Eagle. “So we will definitely be watching that.”

The situations differ because there are different appointment systems for Supreme Court justices and appellate court judges.

The Supreme Court members are selected through what is called the merit system, where a panel of lawyers and lay persons nominate three names and the governor chooses. In that system, the governor’s choice is final.

But during the administration of former Gov. Sam Brownback, he and the Legislature changed the rules for the appeals court to the what is called the federal model.

The governor can nominate anyone to serve on the Court of Appeals, but the state Senate has to confirm the nomination.

The Senate is dominated by Republicans, so any choice that Kelly, a Democrat, might make is almost guaranteed to face heavy scrutiny and substantial opposition.

In January, the Senate rejected the appeals court nomination of Carl Folsom, a longtime and widely respected state and federal public defender.

The main complaint about Folsom raised on the Senate floor was that he had represented a defendant in a child pornography case, which, as a public defender, he was legally obligated to do.

Until 2013, appellate judges and Supreme Court justices were all chosen through the merit system.

Brownback and the Legislature could only change the appeals court selection process on their own.

The selection of Supreme Court justices is spelled out in the state Constitution, so any changes there would need a two-thirds vote of both houses of the Legislature and a vote of the people to pass.

Anti-abortion politics were at the forefront of a 2106 effort to unseat four Supreme Court justices, but the effort failed to remove any of the members.

Earlier this year, a constitutional amendment to reverse the Supreme Court’s abortion decision failed to reach the needed two-thirds majority in the House, although it did pass the Senate.

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©2020 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.)

Visit The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.) at www.kansas.com

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