Shortly before Christmas in 2000, brothers Reginald and Jonathan Carr went on a brutal robbery, rape and murder spree that left five people dead and traumatized Wichita, Kansas’s largest city. The brothers were sentenced to death, but in July, the Kansas Supreme Court set aside the death sentences for the notorious killers, shocking many Kansans and adding fuel to a debate over how justices on the state's highest court should be chosen, Stateline reports. To state Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, a Republican, the court's decision to overturn the brothers' capital murder convictions is only the latest example of the court defying public sentiment, and a compelling argument for why Kansas residents should have a more powerful voice in choosing their top judges.
In several states, including Kansas and Florida, state legislators have been debating how justices for state supreme courts should be chosen. Meanwhile, elections to win or retain court seats increasingly have become big-money contests, with political parties and special interests pouring in campaign dollars to try to help elect or unseat justices in more than a dozen states in recent years. The stakes are high: State supreme courts review local courts' criminal and civil verdicts and the constitutionality of state laws, and about 95 percent of all legal cases are filed in state courts. Politicians like Bruce argue that the courts should more closely reflect public opinion. Advocates of an independent judiciary argue that justices should be able to make decisions free of political and special-interest pressure. They warn that forcing judges to curry political favor or compile huge campaign war chests to win elections threatens that independence.