Democratic governor getting to shape Kansas' top court

Law Review

The Kansas Supreme Court's chief justice plans to retire before the end of the year, allowing first-year Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly to leave a bigger mark on the state's highest court than her conservative Republican predecessors.

Chief Justice Lawton Nuss announced Friday that he would step down Dec. 17 after serving on the court since 2002 and as chief justice since 2010. During Nuss' tenure as chief justice, GOP conservatives increasingly criticized the court as too liberal and too activist for the state over rulings on abortion, capital punishment and public school funding.

His announcement came a little more than two weeks after Justice Lee Johnson, another target of criticism on the right, announced plans to retire in September. That means Kelly will have two appointments to the seven-member court since she took office in January when conservative GOP Govs. Sam Brownback and Jeff Colyer had only one appointee between them during the previous eight years.

Both justices voted repeatedly to direct legislators to increase education funding in recent years and were part of the 6-1 majority that declared in April that the state constitution protects access to abortion as a "fundamental" right. They also voted to overturn death sentences in capital murder cases, though Nuss concluded that the death penalty law itself is constitutional.

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