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Is special session really necessary?

Revising ‘Hard 50’ law would be sole topic

By The Mercury

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt would rather keep Kansans safe from some of the state’s most notorious murderers than be sorry that inaction by lawmakers might result in court rulings that cut years from killers’ sentences.

He’s concerned enough about the validity of the state’s “Hard 50” law — under which judges can decide whether circumstances call for a mandatory 50-year sentence without parole — to ask Gov. Sam Brownback to call a special legislative session to revise the law.

Though we’d like to know more about how urgent the situation is, Mr. Schmidt has been guided more by issues of public safety and common sense than by ideological factors, and his view deserves the utmost consideration.

He contends that a U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in a Virginia case in June raises questions about the constitutionality of the Kansas law. Although the Kansas Supreme Court upheld the Hard 50 law, the U.S. Supreme Court said juries, not judges, should have the last word on factors that trigger mandatory minimum sentences.

In a letter to the governor, Mr. Schmidt identified two dozen murder cases that could be affected by the Supreme Court ruling and acknowledged that others probably exist.

He would like the special session to begin by mid-September, about four months before the 2014 Legislature would convene.

There’s no certainty that Hard 50 sentences would be gutted — pertinent cases could well be referred back to the respective courts that issued them for resentencing — but that’s a risk the attorney general doesn’t want to take. In his letter to the governor, Mr. Schmidt wrote, “With each passing day, the loophole that has been created in Kansas law grows wider. Because these are the ‘worst of the worst’ homicides, I believe the interests of public safety require us to act swiftly.”

Support for Mr. Schmidt’s request appears to be bipartisan. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff King wants the issue addressed “as promptly as possible,” and House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence attorney, said, “I don’t know of any reason to believe we don’t need to have a special session.”

Costs needn’t be excessive — about $35,000 per day — and if lawmakers get down to business, there’s little reason this issue couldn’t be dealt with quickly.

Before any money is spent, however, all other possibilities ought to be explored. This special session should be held only if there is reason to believe that the will of Kansans will be set aside before lawmakers convene in January.

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