As Gov. Mark Parkinson judges the nominees for the open Kansas Supreme Court seat, he will focus on merit, not on diversifying the all-white, two-thirds male court.
The finalists include two appeals court judges, Nancy Caplinger and Thomas Malone, and District Judge Merlin Wheeler. In Kansas, a nominating commission selects three finalists for open seats, and the governor appoints one from the list.
Although the nominees include a woman, there is no minority representation. Parkinson received the short list earlier this week and must make his choice by Nov. 27.
â€œCertainly diversity is a very important criteria in assembling any prominent group,â€ said Amy Jordan Wooden, Parkinsonâ€™s press secretary and communications director. â€œBut the governorâ€™s primarily focused on intellect and fairness in making this decision.â€
Parkinsonâ€™s pick will replace Chief Justice Robert Davis, who died Aug. 4 after sitting on the court since 1993 and serving as chief justice since 2009. The Nominating Commission didnâ€™t consider diversity in selecting the three finalists, said Ron Keefover, education and information officer for the state judiciary.
â€œThey (the commission members) base their nominations on qualifications, legal experience, writings, temperament and a lot of other things,â€ Keefover said. â€œGender is not one of them, although one of the nominees is a woman.â€
The Kansas Supreme Court had three women justices from 2005 to 2009. That number fell to two when Chief Justice Kay McFarland, the first female Kansas Supreme Court justice, retired last year.
University of Kansas political science Professor Burdett Loomis ascribed the lack of diversity in part to the fairly homogeneous state population. The past predominance of white males in law schools, he said, hasnâ€™t helped.
But he added that he expects this to change as more minorities earn law degrees. Also, already half of current law school enrollment is female.
â€œIt just takes quite a while for changes in education and social patterns to manifest themselves to people who are 45, 50, 55 years old to be considered to the Supreme Court,â€ Loomis said. â€œCome back in 20 years, and I think youâ€™ll see a lot more women and, to an extent, minorities as well.â€
The League of Women Voters of Kansas launched a project to increase Supreme Court diversity in Kansas a year and a half ago. Mainly, the group aimed its efforts at educating the public.
Upon hearing of the nominations Wednesday, Kansas League President Ernestine Krehbiel said she was glad to see some diversity. But she admitted that she had hoped for more.
â€œIf we donâ€™t even have them (minorities) nominated, weâ€™re going to continue to have a judiciary that does not look like the population,â€ Krehbeil said. â€œIn the old days, we were concerned that we wanted a jury of your peers that looked like the general population. That is the same thing with the judiciary. We want it to reflect the population.â€
Within the League of Women Voters, the push for more equal representation in state supreme courts originated in Kansas. But the effort has since spread to other states.
In Missouri, the Supreme Court has three female judges. All seven of the judges are white.
â€œKansas was the first state to take on this project,â€ Krehbiel said. â€œAll across the states, there is this disparity.â€