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Ex-staffer appointed as Kansas Supreme Court’s new justice

March 11, 2020 GMT
Newly appointed Kansas Supreme Court Justice K.J. Wall, right, speaks to reporters as Gov. Laura Kelly watches during a news conference, Wednesday, March 11, 2020, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Wall is a 49-year-old Lawrence, Kan., attorney who formerly worked for the high court. (AP Photo/John Hanna)
Newly appointed Kansas Supreme Court Justice K.J. Wall, right, speaks to reporters as Gov. Laura Kelly watches during a news conference, Wednesday, March 11, 2020, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Wall is a 49-year-old Lawrence, Kan., attorney who formerly worked for the high court. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly on Wednesday named an attorney who said he’s similar in temperament to former Chief Justice Lawton Nuss to replace Nuss as a Kansas Supreme Court justice.

K.J. Wall, of Lawrence, also formerly worked for the state’s highest court overseeing special projects and research for justices in death penalty cases. He was most recently a partner in law firm that represents rural Kansas hospitals and previously worked as an attorney for a Minnesota-based insurance company.

Kelly cited what she described as his wide-ranging background in picking Wall over a Kansas Court of Appeals judge and a veteran prosecutor who now works for Attorney General Derek Schmidt. Wall, 49, grew up in Scott City in western Kansas, where his father operated a hardware store, and was a national champion debater at Kansas State University.

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He will join a seven-member court that for years has faced strong criticism from conservative Republican legislators over rulings on school funding, the death penalty and abortion. GOP leaders in the Republican-controlled Legislature are trying to put a proposed amendment to the state constitution on the ballot to overturn a ruling last year protecting abortion rights.

“He brings a breadth and depth of knowledge and experience to the court that I think will be extraordinarily productive,” Kelly told reporters at the end of a Statehouse news conference.

Nuss retired in December to make the court’s next senior member, Marla Luckert, chief justice. Wall worked as the Supreme Court’s deputy counsel from 2013 to 2015, and said he’s similar to Nuss in that he has “a strong belief in deciding each case on the merits.”

“In hindsight now, I’m fortunate that my Dad made me to work at the hardware store every day and wait on customers,” he said. “They taught me in a hurry how much they honored and appreciated values like honesty, integrity and fairness.”

Wall is Kelly’s second appointment to the seven-member court in less than four months — one more than her two Republican predecessors, Govs. Sam Brownback and Jeff Colyer, had together in eight years. Under the state constitution, her choice is not subject to state Senate confirmation.

Abortion opponents criticized Kelly’s first appointee, Justice Evelyn Wilson, a former Shawnee County judge, because of her husband’s past donations to Kelly and other abortion-rights candidates. Wall’s possible appointment generated no similar criticism.

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A state commission named three finalists for Kelly to consider from among 18 applicants to replace Nuss. The other finalists were Court of Appeals Judge Tom Malone and Steven Obermeier, who worked three decades as a Johnson County prosecutor before becoming assistant state solicitor general in Schmidt’s office in 2017.

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjdhanna