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Kansas Senators Reject Governor’s Appellate Court Nominee, But That's Not the Last Word

Senate President Susan Wagle, center, talks with Sens. Jeff Longbine, left, and Ed Berger before the chamber rejected Gov. Laura Kelly's nominee for an appellate court. (Photo by Stephen Koranda)

Kansas senators met Tuesday to formally vote down Gov. Laura Kelly’s nomination for a Court of Appeals seat. In a strange twist, even Kelly wanted her nominee rejected.

The outcome was already known before lawmakers returned to Topeka for the single vote.

Kelly had tried to withdraw the nomination of District Court Judge Jeffry Jack after a series of a politically charged tweets came to light, but a Kansas Supreme Court ruling said that, instead, the Senate would have to vote down the choice. Then, Kelly could make official her new pick, Lenexa attorney Sarah Warner.

There’s a partisan divide between the Democratic governor and Senate Republican leaders. The GOP didn’t miss a chance to point out Kelly’s misstep and the fact that the chamber had to convene a special meeting just to vote down the nominee.

Republican Sen. Dan Goddard said lawmakers wouldn’t have needed the special meeting if the governor’s administration had more thoroughly vetted Jack.

“I am totally frustrated with a nomination and confirmation process that can be characterized as a cluster gaggle,” Goddard said.

The tweets from Jack included profanity, calls for gun control and insults aimed at President Donald Trump.

“A president who is objectively ignorant, lazy and cowardly,” read one tweet, which has since been deleted.

Kelly created a panel to screen the applicants for the court seat, and she said that group missed the tweets. It gave her a slate of three choices and Kelly initially picked Jack.

“I don’t feel like I made that mistake,” Kelly said last week. “Was that mistake made? Yes.”

The special meeting of the Senate will cost taxpayers between $16,000 and $17,000, said Legislative Administrative Services Director Thomas Day. That cost covers lawmaker wages, lawmaker expenses and pay for the staff.

Senate President Susan Wagle previously said “incompetence” in Kelly’s administration led to the problem. The Republican lawmaker was frustrated at the use of taxpayer dollars for the special Senate session and said senators will be keeping a close eye on Kelly’s future nominees.

“Most senators are very aware now that we need to thoroughly vet every candidate, ask them questions and make sure we aren’t putting a partisan hack on the bench,” Wagle said after the vote.

The chamber rejected Jack’s nomination on a 38-0 vote. The Democratic leader of the Senate, Anthony Hensley, said Kelly hadn’t vetted Jack well enough. But he gave her credit for trying to withdraw the nomination when the tweets became public.

“Too often in politics today, leaders do not admit mistakes have been made,” Hensley said on the Senate floor.

It’s not the last word on Jack’s tweets. Republican Sen. Richard Wilborn unveiled a letter Tuesday asking the Commission on Judicial Conduct to review Jack’s actions.

Wilborn stopped short of saying Jack should be removed from the bench. He said the commission will have to decide that, but Wilborn called the tweets “horrible.”

“I believe Judge Jack’s actions,” the letter reads, “impugn the dignity of his office and call into question his ability to serve as judge in our Kansas court system.”

Jack previously said that as a citizen he has a right to call out comments by people in power, such as the president. He apologized to Kelly and said he didn’t intend for the tweets to be public.

“I am not sorry for believing that violence is bad, that discrimination is bad, that misogyny is bad or that hypocrisy is bad,” Jack said, the Topeka Capital-Journal reported.

It’s not unheard of for a political appointee to withdraw because screening missed something. Then-Gov. Sam Brownback’s choice for the state’s top tech job withdrew in 2011 because one of his degrees was from a so-called “diploma mill.” That job didn’t need Senate confirmation, so replacing the choice was easier for Brownback.

This situation is different, though, because the process dragged on through a court fight and then the special Senate meeting needed to reject Kelly’s nominee.

The whole process has created a stage for political rivalries, according to Emporia State University Political Scientist Michael Smith. Smith said the dust-up has been a chance for GOP lawmakers to show they’re holding Kelly’s feet to the fire.

“It’s working on the Republican base,” Smith said. “It’s working on the next Republican primary election.”

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