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Abortion Becomes an Issue in Kansas Judicial Election

February 20th, 2013

The right to an abortion is guaranteed by the Federal Constitution, and so every state court is bound by the rulings by the federal Supreme Court on the legality of abortion restrictions—from late-term abortions to parental notification rights to any other contested issue. Therefore, it is unusual for abortion to become a hot topic in a state Supreme Court election. But in Kansas, conservatives have begun a “fire Beier” movement in an attempt to remove Chief Justice Carol Beier from the bench, claiming she is “acting more like the defense attorney for Kansas abortion businesses rather than an impartial judge.”

The dispute began in 2006, when then-Attorney General Phill Kline brought charges against Dr. George Tiller, a doctor who worked at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Witchita. Kline accused Tiller of illegally performing dozens of abortions on minors. In March of 2009, Tiller was found not guilty of all charges—but in May of that same year, he was murdered in his church by an anti-abortion activist.

What does this have to do with Chief Justice Beier and the Kansas Supreme Court? In pursuing his investigation, Attorney General Kline failed to properly safeguard the patient records that he had acquired from Planned Parenthood. In 2008, Planned Parenthood brought a contempt action against Kline regarding these records, and the case reached the Supreme Court. The Court unanimously agreed to sanction Kline (though it stopped short of holding him in contempt), and Justice Beier wrote a scathing majority opinion that criticized every aspect of how Kline had handled the case. Kline had become something of a hero to the Kansas right-to-life movement, and they perceived Beier’s attack on Kline’s conduct as a gratuitous personal vendetta.

As it turns out, Beier was not alone in her criticism of Kline—his zealous conduct has run afoul of numerous local district attorneys and lower court judges. And of course Beier’s comments and her Court’s holding had no substantive effect on abortion law in Kansas, so removing her from the Court will do nothing to change how abortions are regulated in the state.

In reality, the Beier-Kline dispute is probably only being used as a convenient rallying call for conservatives, who have (in perhaps a bit of hyperbole) called Beier one of the most liberal state court justices in the country. Conservatives are especially upset about a recent ruling by the Kansas Supreme Court which will require increased funding to public schools. But formulas for school funding are not likely to rally many voters to remove Beier from office. Indeed, in her last retention vote in 2004, over 76% of Kansans voted to retain her. No Kansas Supreme Court Justice has ever lost a retention vote—and it seems quite unlikely that a manufactured “controversy” over sanctions in an abortion case will be enough to reverse that trend.

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