After interviews throughout all of Monday, the state’s Supreme Court Nominating Commission will send the names of Kim Cudney, Melissa Standridge and Kristen Wheeler to the governor.
Gov. Laura Kelly will then choose one of them to fill the vacancy on the Kansas Supreme Court, opened up by the retirement of former Justice Carol Beier last month. This will be Kelly’s third appointment to the state’s highest court.
The three nominees were chosen from a field of 11 candidates, all with previous legal experience.
Cudney is the chief judge of the 12th Judicial District and received the most votes throughout the three voting rounds. Wheeler, a graduate of Washburn University School of Law, works for federal judge J. Thomas Marten. Standridge is an appellate judge in the Kansas Court of Appeals.
Two of the candidates considered are from Topeka, though none made it past the first two voting rounds. Randall Hodgkinson is a law professor at Washburn University and was a public defender and appellate defender in previous careers. Cheryl Rios, currently a district court judge in Shawnee County, served previously on the City of Topeka Municipal Court and worked in the county’s district attorney’s office.
The commission — consisting of five lawyers and four people who aren’t lawyers — interviewed candidates about a variety of factors, from work experience to personal character.
For example, two members asked Hodgkinson about what some called his "quirkiness" or description as a "legal nerd." He called that a positive.
"I hope whoever you pick, I hope that you are just so confident that they are so intellectually curious about the law and the things that come before them," Hodgkinson said, adding that "some of my worst experiences with appellate judges" were those who did not find criminal cases interesting.
Candidates were asked about the role the state Supreme Court should play in public, of which many acknowledged that public perception of the courts could use some improving. Many flexed their community engagement experience, speaking to groups and educating folks about how the judicial system works.
"It’s getting out there into the communities so that they can meet a real judge and know that we’re normal people and that we are committed to the rule of law and an independent judiciary," Standridge said.
Diversity was a theme among the interviews, such as when Rios was asked why she should be chosen when there were already three Supreme Court justices from Shawnee County’s district.
Rio brought up how she grew up in a neighborhood in East Topeka, attended a segregated grade school and that a majority of her peers were blue-collar, having to pitch in to help the family make a living.
"I believe that my background, not just my Latina background, my nursing background, all of those things I’ve discussed with you, my ability to communicate well, my ability to see things through a different lens ... is important," she said.
In addition, commission members asked candidates about their administrative abilities, an important function of the court. Many, including Rios, talked about how they have taken charge when transitioning their courts to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic.
Unlike the federal Supreme Court, the selection process here doesn’t go through any of the state’s legislative chambers. In the past, state Republicans have complained about Kelly’s judicial selections.
"Governor Kelly and her political allies on the bench are clamoring to pack the high court before the Kansas people, through their elected representatives, have a chance to reform the process to include Senate confirmation," Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, previously told The Topeka Capital-Journal. "Kansans deserve to have a voice in who sits on the highest court in the state."
Current state Supreme Court justices Evelyn Wilson and K.J. Wall were also appointed by Kelly after their predecessors’ retirements. Overall, five of seven justices will have been appointed by Democratic governors.
Whomever the governor appoints for her third pick will serve on the court for a year before undergoing retention elections in the next general election.