When King George III sent his hand-picked judges to preside over American Colonial Courts, the colonists rebelled. They knew the King would choose only judges that would side with him on every issue. These judges owed their positions to the King alone, and “the King can do no wrong. ” If allowed to pack the bench with those loyal to him alone, the colonists knew their monarch would have unchecked power over them, and they would be denied all hope of fair, impartial and independent courts.
Sixty years ago a Kansas Governor, defeated at the ballot box, resigned his office before the end of his term so that his Lieutenant Governor could appoint him to be Chief Justice of the Kansas Supreme Court. The public was understandably outraged at this self-serving abuse of power. A new system for appointing judges was put into place. A nominating committee of citizens–some appointed by the Governor, others not–was instituted to vet interested candidates; assure their professional qualifications; and, to submit the best and least ideological to the Governor for consideration. The system served the public well. Independent business and consumer groups alike have long given Kansas courts high marks for the quality of the state's judges and the fairness of its judicial system.
Fast-forward to 2013. This session, the Kansas Legislature dispensed with the time-tested and independent judicial nominating committee; once again handing the Governor the power to appoint whomever he likes to the appellate courts. The temptation for a governor–any governor–to pack the courts with sycophants and political allies is easy to imagine.
In most countries around the world, the power of the majority is absolute. The recently elected government of Egypt thought its mandate was to do whatever its supporters liked, without regard for the views of the opposition. As we now read in the papers, the citizens of Egypt thought otherwise and are, once again, in rebellion.
In the United States, we charted a different course. Here, the majority in power gives respect to minority rights as well. These rights are enshrined in our Constitution–the supreme law of the land that protects individuals and minority groups from the excesses of the majority. Independent courts play the important role of standing in the way when a party in power–whether Democrats or Republicans–governs like a monarch, without regard for the rights of all citizens. In America, we saw the King actually can do wrong, and that it takes an independent judiciary to tell him so.
It seems to me that independent courts are our safeguard against any majority that would oppress the minority. By giving one person all of the power to choose its judges, Kansas endangers the independence of its courts and that important safeguard. I would be interested to know what you think.
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