Judges Eric Yost and Jeffrey Goering each gave $100 to the Kansans for Life PAC in 2011 according to the group’s financial disclosure statement. In the mid 2000′s Yost was involved in the legal battle/crusade between former Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline and the murdered Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider who was assassinated while attending church. And in January 2001 Goering issued a temporary order prohibiting a Wichita doctor from using her office to perform abortions because her landlord believed it would create a nuisance.
Neither of the donations is considered improper under current Kansas laws and regulations, and both judges were quick to defend the donations.
However, unlike the Supreme Court, sitting state court judges are governed by a code of judicial ethics that prohibits any action that creates even the appearance of a conflict of interests. Most judges take that professionalism seriously and simply avoid donations to political organizations because of the inevitable appearance of bias those donations create.
Kansas law allows judges elected in partisan elections to make political donations. Yost, Goering and the other judges in Sedgwick County — as well as 13 other Kansas judicial districts — are chosen in partisan elections. Both Yost and Goering were unopposed as Republicans in their last elections in 2008. Their seats on the bench are up for election this year. Judges in 17 other Kansas jurisdictions, including Johnson County, are appointed to the bench and then face retention elections. The ethics code is silent on political contributions by “merit system” judges, which some experts say means donations might be proper for some judges in Kansas but not for others.
And not all Kansas Republicans are comfortable with the donations. State Sen. John Vratil, R-Leawood, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and an attorney, said he wants to examine the state’s rule for political contributions by judges. “It can’t be good for the judiciary because it reflects on their impartiality,” Vratil said.
Of course, challenging the extent of judicial political contributions is tricky since a 2002 Supreme Court decision overturning a Minnesota law prohibiting judicial candidates from speaking on some public issues, and as we all know by now, political speech includes donating money to political causes. So for now the issue of judicial impartiality will be under additional scrutiny with the only good answer to immediately push for extensive disclosures by donors and political organizations.
Photo from infowidget via flickr.