TOPEKA, Kan. — Rules barring Kansas judicial candidates from personally soliciting contributions and limiting what they can say during campaigns can't be enforced because of questions about the limits' constitutionality, a federal judge has ruled.
U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson is prohibiting the state's Commission on Judicial Qualifications from moving against judges or judicial candidates who violate provisions in Kansas' code of judicial conduct. Her order, issued July 19, is to remain in effect until she considers a lawsuit filed by Kansas Judicial Watch, a political action committee based in Wichita.
The PAC sued the commission after it advised a judicial candidate in April that he could not answer a questionnaire from the group without running afoul of the code.
Among other things, the questionnaire asked whether a candidate thought the Kansas Supreme Court had overstepped its authority in ordering legislators to increase spending on public schools, whether same-sex marriages should be prohibited and whether fetuses have a right to life that "should be respected at every stage of their biological development."
Kansas Judicial Watch argued that the code contained provisions that violated judicial candidates' free-speech rights and prevented voters from obtaining information about them.
Robinson's order covered two provisions. One prohibits candidates from making pledges on how they'll conduct themselves if elected or committing themselves to positions on cases or even general issues likely to come before the court. The second says a judicial candidate must have a committee solicit campaign contributions or even "publicly stated support."
"The state's effort to limit the inherent effects of elections on the public's confidence in judicial impartiality chills protected political speech," Robinson wrote in her 48-page order.
Kansas Judicial Watch submitted its questionnaire to judicial candidates in Sedgwick County and to nine state Court of Appeals judges, who are appointed but stand for retention on the bench every four years.
James Bopp Jr., a Terre Haute, Ind., attorney representing Kansas Judicial Watch, had predicted the provisions in the Kansas code would not withstand scrutiny because of the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Republican Party of Minnesota v. White — which Robinson cited.
"The free-speech rights of judicial candidates and citizens in Kansas have been vindicated," Bopp said.
Ron Keefover, a spokesman for Kansas' court system, said attorneys were reviewing the ruling and deciding whether to appeal it to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.
Named as defendants in the lawsuit were the commission's 14 members; its examiner, who prosecutes complaints against judges; the state's disciplinary administrator for attorneys and four staff members.
"In terms of the immediate impact, there are no complaints pending against a judge or judge candidate for violating any of those provisions," Keefover said.
State Supreme Court justices and Court of Appeals judges are appointed by the governor and stand for retention. The same is true for 125 district judges in 52 of the state's 105 counties.
But 115 district judges in 53 counties are elected.
"Because the state has voluntarily allowed for this method of judicial selection, the candidates should be allowed to educate the voters about themselves without fear of discipline," Robinson wrote in her order.