Abortion foes seek to unseat Kansas Court of Appeals judges


TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Abortion opponents campaigning to oust Kansas Supreme Court justices also are trying to unseat four state Court of Appeals judges in Tuesday’s election over a ruling that critics fear could endanger many abortion restrictions.

Kansans for Life has included the Court of Appeals judges in mailings to thousands of households. Other conservatives also are on board with the ouster effort, though it has received much less attention than the campaign against Supreme Court justices.

Appeals judges face a statewide, yes-or-no vote every four years on whether they remain on the court. If voters remove any of them this year, anti-abortion Republican Gov. Sam Brownback would appoint their replacements, subject to state Senate confirmation.

Kathy Ostrowski, Kansans for Life’s legislative director, said Friday of voters, “They have a right to have the courts reflect their values and to be rooted on the constitution as the yardstick.”

The ruling prompting the effort was in January in a lawsuit against a first-in-the-nation state law enacted in 2015 to ban a common second-trimester abortion method. Doctors would be prohibited from using forceps or similar instruments on a live fetus to remove it from the womb in pieces; the law calls the procedure “dismemberment abortion,” a phrase coined by abortion opponents.

A Shawnee County judge temporarily blocked the law’s enforcement. The Court of Appeals split 7-7 on whether the state constitution protects abortion rights independently of the U.S. Constitution, potentially allowing Kansas courts to reject restrictions upheld by federal courts. The case is before the Kansas Supreme Court, and the law has yet to be enforced.

Judge Steve Leben, one of the targeted Court of Appeals members, said that the judges had “an honest disagreement” about applying past Kansas Supreme Court precedents.

“We were not deciding our personal views about abortion rights,” Leben said. “We were reading precedents of a court we’re required to follow and doing our best to apply them.”

The other targeted Court of Appeals judges are Karen Arnold-Burger , G. Gordon Atcheson and G. Joseph Pierron Jr. They were among the seven judges blocking the law and were appointed by previous Democratic or moderate GOP governors.

Two other judges, David Bruns and Kathryn Gardner, also are on the ballot but are not targeted. They would have allowed the law to be enforced and were appointed by Brownback.

Atcheson said in an email that the public should be wary of campaigns by interest groups to replace judges with “ideologues committed in advance to furthering those special interests.”

Arnold-Burger cited high rankings from judges and attorneys and said she examines cases “in a fair and impartial manner based solely on the law and the facts” knowing “at least 50 percent of the litigants will be dissatisfied.”

At issue in the abortion case is language in the state’s Bill of Rights saying residents have “natural rights” and that “free governments” were created for their “equal protection and benefit.” Ostrowski said if the Kansas Supreme Court reads protection for abortion into those phrases, legal challenges to many restrictions will follow and, “it’s just Wild West.”

Moriah Day, treasurer for Kansans for Conservative Values, said the PAC’s focus has been the Supreme Court, “but definitely there are activist judges on all the courts in Kansas.”

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