Special session will test leaders

Michael Smith

By A Contributor

Gov. Sam Brownback has called a special session of the Kansas Legislature on Sept. 3. It will be the first since 1995. At issue is the so-called “Hard 50” law, allowing judges to im-pose a 50-year prison sentence without parole or probation to those convicted of crimes deemed particularly heinous.

Ruling on a similar Virginia law, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that juries, not judges, should decide the sentences. Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt wrote the governor to express concern that this ruling could affect more than two dozen cases pending in Kansas. A joint legislative committee headed by Rep. Lance Kinzer (R-Olathe), has been formed to draft legislation to fix the “Hard 50” law and have it ready to move quickly.  However, House Speaker Ray Merrick (R-Stilwell) and Senate President Susan Wagle (R-Wichita) may have their hands full keeping a lid on restive colleagues’ desires to raise other issues during the special session.

The most pertinent me-too concern will probably be dis-missed quickly because it is being raised by the badly out-numbered Democratic minority. Rep. Jim Ward and Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, both of whom are Wichita Democrats, want the Legislature to respond to another recent Supreme Court ruling. In Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council, the Court struck down an Arizona law requiring that a birth certificate be shown when citizens register to vote. Plain-tiffs challenged the law and won on behalf of voters who had tried to register using a federal form created by the 1993 “Motor Voter” law, which does not require a birth certificate.

Ward and Faust-Goudeau con-tend that given this ruling, the special session would be a great time to scrap a similar Kansas law championed by Secretary of State Kris Kobach. However, Kobach counters that the Kansas law was written with this issue in mind. Those who register using the federal form and no birth certificate can vote in federal elections (for president and Congress) but not state elections, creating a loophole that may save the Kansas law from being unconstitutional.

Other lawmakers have their own agendas for the special session. Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley (D-Topeka) expressed concern that the brief session will allow Brownback to quickly nominate a judge for the Court of Appeals and speed approval through the Senate in a few days with little scrutiny. Hensley’s concern will probably be dismissed with little fanfare.

By far the bigger headache for leadership comes from Kansas Right to Life President Mark Gietzen, who seeks to rein-troduce the “fetal heartbeat” bill.

This bill would prohibit an abortion once a fetal heartbeat has been detect-ed, which would probably put the state before the U.S. Supreme Court to challenge the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling. Frustrated that the bill did not pass before the Legislature adjourned this year, Gietzen sees the special session as a chance to finish the job.

Brownback, Merrick and Wagle are all anti-abortion. Yet, as leaders, their job is to keep the Legislature on task — to say to colleagues, “I agree with you on this, but the special session isn’t the right time.” 

Can they do this effectively without losing their anti-abortion credibility? The special session will put their skills to the test. 

Michael Smith is an associate professor of political science at Emporia State University.

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