Judge opposed by abortion foes finalist for top Kansas court

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A trial-court judge opposed by Kansas’ most influential anti-abortion group is among three finalists to fill a state Supreme Court vacancy with conservatives pushing measures to rein in the state’s highest court.

A state nominating commission led by attorneys selected Shawnee County District Judge Evelyn Wilson, the chief judge for the district that includes the state capital. Kansans for Life announced its opposition to her candidacy this week, citing her husband’s past political contributions to Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and other abortion-rights candidates.

The commission also named two veteran attorneys who work for the state’s Republican attorney general as finalists, Deputy Attorney General Dennis Depew and Assistant Solicitor General Steven Obermeier. Kelly’s appointee will go on the court without any review by the Republican-controlled Legislature.

It will be the first of two vacancies that Kelly is due to fill in the next few months because of retirements on the seven-member Supreme Court. She took office in January and will have more appointees in a little more than a year than her two GOP predecessors had combined.

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The changes on the Supreme Court come as conservatives are trying to overturn a ruling from the justices protecting abortion rights and are pushing to require state Senate confirmation of the high court’s members. Both changes would require amending the state constitution, and legislators are expected to consider putting the proposals on the ballot next year.

Commission members said they were unaware of Kansans for Life’s public opposition to Wilson and another of the 19 candidates interviewed. They said they were looking both for legal experience and to make the court more diverse.

“It looked to me like the commission went with experienced people that had proven track records of accomplishment in law, either as judges or lawyers or both,” said commission Chairman Mikel Stout, a Wichita attorney.

Kelly’s first appointee will replace former Justice Lee Johnson, who retired last month, and Chief Justice Lawton Nuss plans to retire in December. Both were targeted by conservatives and both were part of the court’s majority in its historic abortion-rights ruling in April.

Wilson was appointed to the bench in Shawnee County in 2004 by then-Democratic Gov. Katheen Sebelius, another abortion-rights supporter, and became the chief judge in 2014.

Depew has overseen work on civil cases for the attorney general since 2015 and previously practiced law for more than three decades in the southeast Kansas town of Neodesha. Obermeier has extensive experience arguing cases before the state’s appellate courts and previously was a prosecutor in Johnson County in the Kansas City suburbs for more than 30 years.

“What I’m looking for in the three names I send up, who I can support, are people who are level-headed, who have a good measure of experience; people who are smart enough to do the job, and people in whom everyday Kansans can feel confident, as well as hard-working lawyers,” said commission member Terrence Campbell, a Lawrence attorney.

Justices face voters statewide every six years, each in a “yes” or “no” question on whether they are retained. Kelly’s appointees will face such votes in 2022. No justice has ever been removed in such a vote since the state abandoned partisan elections in 1960.

Conservatives have long argued that the Kansas Supreme Court is too liberal and have sought to push it to the right. The high court ruled 6-1 in April that the state constitution grants a fundamental right to “personal autonomy” that includes a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy, potentially jeopardizing restrictions already in place.

Kansans for Life’s public opposition to Wilson and state Court of Appeals Judge Melissa Taylor Standridge as potential finalists was unusual. The group issued a public statement and spread word of its position in anti-abortion circles but did not appear to lobby commission members.

Kansans for Life was a key part of unsuccessful election campaign efforts in 2014 and 2016 to oust six of the seven justices, and lobbyist Jeanne Gawdun said such an effort remains a possibility.

“This is a purely political decision made by the purely political Nominating Commission, and it shows that it does not speak for Kansans but for lawyers and political insiders,” Gawdun said.

Campaign finance records showed that contributions by Wilson’s husband, Michael, included $3,000 to Kelly’s campaign for governor and another $3,000 to Kelly’s state Senate campaigns in 2016 and 2012. But he noted this week that he was elected last year as a GOP precinct committee member last year, adding, “Evelyn doesn’t get involved in politics.”

Kansans for Life opposed Standridge because of the abortion-rights case. Before it reached the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals split 7-7 in 2016 over whether the state constitution supports abortion rights, and Strandridge sided with the judges who said it does.

The case did not come up in her interview Friday, and Standridge told the commission: “My job is to interpret the law. I don’t make it.”

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .

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