Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton Nuss said Friday he would retire in December, creating the second vacancy on the state's highest court to be filled by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and inspiring critics of the selection process for justices to renew calls for reform.
Nuss, who has compiled a 37-year legal career, was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2002 by Republican Gov. Bill Graves and has served as chief justice of the court since 2010. He also practiced law in Salina for two decades.
"It has given me the honor of working with the nearly 2,000 dedicated people, judges and employees alike, of the judicial branch of government," he said. "I am extremely proud of what all these good folks have accomplished for their fellow Kansans."
Nuss expects to step down Dec. 17. His announcement followed by two weeks disclosure Supreme Court Justice Lee Johnson would retire on Sept. 8. In 2007, Johnson was promoted to the Supreme Court by Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.
Kelly, who took office in January, is responsible for relying on a merit-based vetting process of applicants before filling the two vacancies. There is no confirmation process involving the Kansas Senate with regard to Supreme Court vacancies.
The governor said Nuss put "his exceptional talents to work for the people of Kansas."
"As a Marine, a lawyer, a jurist and a Kansan, Chief Justice Nuss has taken challenges head on and never shied from struggle or duty," Kelly said. "He’s been in the arena, doing difficult work on behalf of Kansans. And he has done it well."
Sen. Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican and chairman of the Kansas Truth Caucus, said back-to-back retirements of Johnson and Nuss indicated a strategy of replacing both before voters could take up an amendment to the Kansas Constitution requiring Senate confirmation votes on Supreme Court nominees.
"Governor Kelly and her political allies on the bench are clamoring to pack the high court before the Kansas people, through their elected representatives, have a chance to reform the process to include Senate confirmation," Masterson said. "Kansans deserve to have a voice in who sits on the highest court in the state."
Since adoption by Kansans of a constitutional amendment in 1958, the Supreme Court Nominating Commission has reviewed applications and conducted public interviews of applicants. The commission submits names of three finalists to the governor, who makes the selection.
The nine-member nominating commission has been a GOP target for years because five members are attorneys and the four nonlawyers are appointed by governors. Opposition to this approach was amplified by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, who favored the federal model of unilateral nomination by a governor followed with Senate confirmation.
Justice Marla Luckert, based on seniority on the court, will replace Nuss as chief of the court.
Luckert praised Nuss for modernizing the court system in Kansas and for urging larger state investment in the justice system.
"During his tenure as chief justice, our state courts have undergone tremendous change," Luckert said. "At the same time, Chief Justice Nuss has earnestly pursued funding levels that will allow us to bring employee pay to market rates and to offer competitive pay for judges, both of which are critical to the effective delivery of justice."
In 2006, Nuss was at the center of an ethics controversy regarding his conversation with two members of the Kansas Senate about a pending K-12 school finance case before the Supreme Court. When The Topeka Capital-Journal informed Supreme Court staff of a developing story about a justice's discussion with lawmakers, Nuss recused himself from the case.
Involvement of Nuss in a conversation with Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, and Sen. Pete Brungardt, R-Salina, prompted an investigation by the Kansas Legislature and an inquiry by the Kansas Commission on Judicial Qualifications.
The commission concluded Nuss violated the code of conduct for judges and justices, declaring Nuss’ conversation with senators had the "appearance of impropriety which undermines public confidence in the judiciary." He was ordered not to repeat the mistake and became the first justice in Kansas to be admonished publicly.