Judge criticized by abortion foes named to top Kansas court

Democratic Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly has named a veteran trial-court judge opposed by the state's most influential anti-abortion group to the Kansas Supreme Court

TOPEKA, Kan. -- Kansas' Democratic governor on Monday named a veteran trial-court judge who is opposed by the state's most influential anti-abortion group to the state Supreme Court — an appointment that's likely to further stoke conservatives' efforts to change how such positions are filled.

Gov. Laura Kelly's selection of Shawnee County District Judge Evelyn Wilson comes with many Republican lawmakers already seeking to give the GOP-controlled Legislature power it doesn't have now to block appointments to the state's high court. Abortion opponents also are pushing for a change in the state constitution that would overturn the court's April ruling that protected abortion rights.

Kelly passed over two veteran lawyers working for Republican state Attorney General Derek Schmidt. Kansans for Life, an anti-abortion group long influential in GOP politics, opposed Wilson's appointment because of her husband's past political contributions to Kelly and other abortion-rights candidates.

“It’s my sense that Judge Wilson is more than qualified to fill this role,” Kelly told reporters during a Statehouse news conference. “Ideology was not really part of the conversation with any of the nominees. "

Kansans for Life said Wilson's selection shows the need to overturn the high court's abortion-rights ruling to protect "women and their babies." Lobbyist Jeanne Gawdun said the group is not surprised that Kelly would make an appointment to further her "vision for unlimited abortion.”

Wilson has not ruled on major abortion cases and declined to comment on the court's abortion-rights ruling declaring that access to abortion is a “fundamental” right under the Kansas Constitution. She will replace former Justice Lee Johnson, who retired in September and was a member of the 6-1 majority in that case.

Her appointment is not subject to legislative oversight, but she will face voters in November 2022 for a yes-or-no vote on whether she should remain on the court for another six years.

“I believe I am a calm person and I am thoughtful," Wilson said, responding to a question about her judicial temperament.

Wilson, 60, has been a judge since 2004. She was appointed to the trial-court bench in the county that includes the state capital, Topeka, by then-Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. Wilson has been the county's chief administrative judge since 2014. Before going on the bench, she was a lawyer in Topeka and Oberlin, a small northwestern Kansas community near the Nebraska border.

Kelly pointed to those experiences and Wilson's growing up in western Kansas as reasons to name her to the high court.

Her husband Michael's past political contributions have included $3,000 to Kelly's campaign for governor in 2018 and another $3,000 to Kelly campaigns for the state Senate in 2016 and 2012, online campaign finance records show. But he has also given to Republicans and was elected a GOP precinct committee member last year.

He has said his wife avoids politics. Kelly cut off a question directed to him from a reporter during the news conference.

The other two finalists were Deputy Kansas Attorney General Dennis Depew, formerly a lawyer in southeast Kansas for three decades and Kansas Bar Association president, and state Assistant Solicitor General Steven Obermeier, who worked as a prosecutor for three decades in Johnson County, the state's most populous county.

A lawyer-led nominating commission chooses finalists for Supreme Court appointments.

It was Kelly's first appointment to the seven-member high court, and it came a day before Chief Justice Lawton Nuss' retirement. His departure elevates the next senior justice, Marla Luckert, to the top position in the state's court system but creates another vacancy for Kelly to fill by mid-March.

Kelly will have more appointments in a little more than a year in office than her two Republican predecessors did in eight years.

Conservative Republican legislators plan to push next year for an amendment to the state constitution to eliminate the nominating commission and have justices named by the governor subject to Senate confirmation. While Kansas has had five Democratic governors in the past 50 years, Republicans have had a Senate majority for more than a century.

“Activist judges in Kansas continue to have full control of our third branch of government,” said Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, a conservative Wichita Republican also running for the U.S. Senate. “It just makes sense to have the people’s duly elected Kansas senators consent to such important appointments.”

Conservatives argue that the current system, in use since 1960, results in a court more liberal than the electorate and makes justices less accountable to voters. Supporters of the system contend it preserves judicial independence.

The Legislature reconvenes Jan. 13 for its annual session, and conservatives also plan to push for a constitutional change on abortion. Kansans for Life wants an amendment declaring that the Legislature has the power to regulate abortion as it sees fit, but some abortion opponents want an amendment banning abortion outright.

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