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Judicial Branch » History of the Kansas Judiciary

The first organized government in the territory that is now Kansas was created by an act of Congress on May 30, 1854, which act created a supreme court, composed of a chief justice and two justices, appointed to four-year terms by the president. The territory was divided into three judicial districts, and each justice of the Territorial Supreme Court also served as judge of a district court. Final judgments of the district courts were reviewable in the Territorial Supreme Court and, with some cases, appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was available.

Kansas became a state on January 29, 1861, and the Kansas Constitution vested judicial power of the state in a supreme court, district courts, probate courts, justices of the peace and other such courts, all inferior to the supreme court, as provided by law. The Kansas Supreme Court consisted of one chief justice and two associate justices elected to six-year terms from the state at large. The state was divided into five judicial districts, each headed by a district judge elected district-wide to a four-year term. Probate judges and justices of the peace were elected in their local jurisdictions to a two-year term.

Kansas’ population at the time of statehood was slightly more than 100,000. By 1885 its population had grown to more than 1.2 million, and the three-justice Kansas Supreme Court had become inadequate. The Kansas Legislature proposed amending the Kansas Constitution to increase the number of justices to five immediately and to seven at a later date, but voters did not pass the amendment.

In 1887 the Legislature authorized the governor (with the Senate’s consent) to appoint three supreme court commissioners to provide temporary help with the vast number of pending cases. The commissioners were appointed to three-year terms with no provision for reappointment. In 1889, the Legislature again proposed a constitutional amendment to provide seven justices, but the proposal was defeated in the 1890 election. The Legislature then extended the terms of the commissioners until 1893, but even with the assistance of the commissioners the delays in cases were great. In 1895 the Legislature again temporarily addressed the problem by creating the Kansas Courts of Appeal, to expire in 1901.

In 1900 Kansas voters finally approved a constitutional amendment to increase the number of justices to seven – the same number as today – elected to six-year terms. The justice with the most seniority served as the chief justice.

In 1958 another constitutional amendment changed the selection of supreme court justices from partisan election to an appointment process. Under the plan, which is still used today, candidates are initially screened by a nonpartisan Supreme Court Nominating Commission, which nominates three persons for appointment by the governor. The governor then makes the appointment and the justice appointed stands for retention election every six years.

In 1965 the Kansas Legislature enacted the Judicial Department Reform Act, which grouped existing district courts into six judicial districts, each supervised by an associate justice of the Supreme Court. The act also established the Office of Judicial Administrator to assist with this work and help manage caseloads in each judicial district.

In 1972 a new judicial article of the Kansas Constitution was adopted that created a unified Kansas court system, which provides there will be one court of justice divided into a supreme court, district courts and other courts as provided by law.

In 1973 the Judiciary Study Advisory Committee was appointed by the chief justice pursuant to legislative authority to offer recommendations for improvement of the court system. Most of the committee’s suggestions were eventually implemented by the Legislature.

Statutory provisions, which took effect in January 1977, reestablished a court of appeals as a seven-member intermediate appellate court. Other major aspects of the court system overhaul included establishing a nonpartisan method for selection of district court judges and transferring the financing of the entire personnel cost for the judicial system from the counties to the state. Other court system reforms enacted were the adoption of a Code of Judicial Conduct and the establishment of uniform procedures for district courts.

Thus, three courts – the Kansas Supreme Court, the Kansas Court of Appeals and the Kansas district courts – currently constitute the unified state judicial system.