Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Legislature closes special session with votes on ‘Hard 50’, court pick

By The Herald Staff | 9/4/2013

TOPEKA — A two-day special session called to address Kansas’ “Hard 50” sentencing law closed Wednesday with little conflict between state lawmakers who gathered at the Capitol after the Labor Day holiday.

Legislators quickly tackled the primary task of the session: updating the Sunflower State’s sentencing law after a June U.S. Supreme Court decision jeopardized its constitutionality. The House passed the reworked “Hard 50” legislation 122-0, followed by the Senate’s passage 40-0. Franklin County lawmakers — state Reps. Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa, and Kevin Jones, R-Wellsville, along with state Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker — voted in favor of the measure.

TOPEKA — A two-day special session called to address Kansas’ “Hard 50” sentencing law closed Wednesday with little conflict between state lawmakers who gathered at the Capitol after the Labor Day holiday.

Legislators quickly tackled the primary task of the session: updating the Sunflower State’s sentencing law after a June U.S. Supreme Court decision jeopardized its constitutionality. The House passed the reworked “Hard 50” legislation 122-0, followed by the Senate’s passage 40-0. Franklin County lawmakers — state Reps. Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa, and Kevin Jones, R-Wellsville, along with state Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker — voted in favor of the measure.

“The members of the Kansas Legislature [Wednesday] unanimously stood strong for public safety in adopting the fix to the Kansas ‘Hard 50’ law,” Derek Schmidt, Kansas attorney general and who requested Gov. Sam Brownback recall the Legislature for the special session, said. “I am grateful that they were willing to return to Topeka to repair the law. With this legislation, Kansas has reinstated the option to make sure the ‘worst of the worst’ murderers stay behind bars for at least 50 years.”

The bill adopted Wednesday by the Legislature created a procedure for juries to make findings upon which a “Hard 50” sentence must be based, allowing the Kansas law to fall within the Constitutional bounds set by the U.S. Supreme Court decision.

“The Legislature acted quickly, with resolve and narrow focus, to protect the safety of all Kansans, and I appreciate their service,” Brownback said in a statement. “The broad bipartisan support for the ‘Hard 50’ sentencing guidelines can be seen in the unanimous votes in both the House and Senate.”

In addition to the “Hard 50” vote, legislators also confirmed several appointments, including Jim Clark as secretary of administration, Josh Ney as securities commissioner and, most controversially, Caleb Stegall to the Kansas Court of Appeals.

“A total of 19 Kansans were approved to serve on boards and commissions,” Brownback said. “I appreciate the diligence of the review committees and Senate in confirming them, and I thank these Kansans for their willingness to serve their fellow citizens.”

Administration critics and government watchdog groups had challenged the fairness and transparency of Brownback’s court pick, Stegall, who was the first appointment to be made using the state’s new federal system for picking appeals court judges. After Stegall’s 32-8 confirmation Wednesday, Ryan Wright, Kansans for Fair Courts executive director, said the governor had rigged the system to appoint a friend to the court, as well as hidden the identities and qualifications of Stegall’s fellow applicants for the court position.

“We were promised an open, transparent and thorough vetting of Gov. Brownback’s nominee for the Kansas Court of Appeals,” Wright said. “What Kansans got was nothing more than a bit of political theater and a bill for $80,000. Gov. Brownback, in his quest to pack the court with his friends, has taken an important element of our democracy — free and fair courts — and turned it into something that can be auctioned off to the highest bidder or political crony.”

During the debate on Stegall’s confirmation, Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said he would pre-file a bill for the 2014 Legislative Session that would require the governor to make public the names of judicial applicants.

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