The Kansas Legislature took a big step Wednesday toward making a sweeping change in how appeals court judges are picked.
The Senate voted 28-12 to pass a constitutional amendment that would give the governor the power to pick appellate judges.
That measure would let the governor select judges for the Kansas Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals. The nominations would have to be confirmed by the Senate.
The bill needed two-thirds support of the Senate -- or 27 votes -- for passage. The bill now goes to the House, where Democrats believe there aren't enough votes to clear the two-thirds hurdle.
If passed by the Legislature, the amendment would be sent to voters to ratify in the 2014 summer primary.
An attempt in the Senate to hold that statewide vote during the general election, when more voters turn out, was ultimately rejected.
Changing the way Kansas picks appellate judges would be a big victory for Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and his conservative allies in the Legislature, some of whom distrust what they think is a liberal judiciary.
The Legislature came close to passing a bill last year that would have let Brownback pick judges for just the Court of Appeals, but it was blocked in the Senate.
Moves to change judicial selection picked up momentum when conservative Republicans gained a large majority in the Senate after last fall's elections.
State appellate judges now are screened by a nine-member nominating commission that includes five attorneys and four non-attorneys named by the governor.
The governor chooses someone from a list of three nominees selected by the commission.
Critics say the existing process is fundamentally undemocratic because it allows unelected lawyers to nominate a majority of the selection panel.
Although other states pick judges in ways similar to Kansas, critics say Kansas is the only state where lawyers have so much control over the selection process.
"We are faced with a system of selecting judges that puts unprecedented power in the hands of one special interest group," said Senate Vice President Jeff King, an Independence Republican.
Supporters of the current system say they believe it protects judicial selection from political games. They also don't want to empower Brownback with judicial appointments.
"The judiciary branch is the last remaining branch free from Gov. Brownback's control," said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat.
Voting for the amendment "would give the governor control of all three branches of government," he said.