Kansas judges question why Taylor can’t withdraw

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FILE - In this combination of Sept. 2014 photos are: Republican Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, top left; Chad Taylor, top right, the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate; Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, bottom left, and Independent Senate candidate Greg Orman. (AP Photo/AP and Topeka Capital Journal, File)
FILE – In this combination of Sept. 2014 photos are: Republican Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, top left; Chad Taylor, top right, the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate; Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, bottom left, and Independent Senate candidate Greg Orman. (AP Photo/AP and Topeka Capital Journal, File)

TOPEKA, Kansas – Several Kansas Supreme Court justices expressed skepticism Tuesday of a Republican official’s decision to keep the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate on the ballot against his wishes as they reviewed a legal dispute that could affect the national fight for control of the Senate.

The court focused on whether a formal letter from Democrat Chad Taylor to withdraw from the race was enough to require Secretary of State Kris Kobach to remove Taylor’s name from the Nov. 4 ballot. Some Democrats nudged Taylor out of the race because they see independent candidate Greg Orman as the stronger rival to three-term Republican incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts.

“The letter is what it is,” Justice Dan Biles said from the bench. “If, as a matter of law, the letter complies with the statute, he (Kobach) has no discretion.”

The Democrat’s withdrawal thrust the Senate race into the national spotlight. Republicans hope to recapture a Senate majority, and they’ve always counted on Roberts winning re-election in his GOP-leaning state. Some Democrats believe an Orman victory could deny the GOP a majority in a close national election.

Kobach, who is strongly supporting Roberts, ruled that Taylor’s name had to remain on the ballot because the candidate didn’t meet the requirements of state law in withdrawing. Keeping Taylor’s name on the ballot could split the anti-Roberts vote and allow the incumbent to win.

A state election law says nominees’ names can be removed from the ballot if they die or declare they’re incapable of fulfilling the duties of office. Taylor’s letter said he wanted to withdraw “pursuant to” the law, but has not given a specific reason why he can’t serve — and refused to comment Tuesday.

Taylor petitioned the court to overturn Kobach’s decision. The court heard arguments Tuesday and is expected to rule quickly, because county officials must begin mailing ballots Saturday to overseas military personnel.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, center, walks with members of his staff and legal team into the Kansas Judicial Center to file documents in a legal dispute before the state Supreme Court over the Democratic nominee's attempt to get off the ballot in the U.S. Senate race, Monday, Sept. 15, 2014, in Topeka, Kan. (AP Photo/John Hanna)
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, center, walks with members of his staff and legal team into the Kansas Judicial Center to file documents in a legal dispute before the state Supreme Court over the Democratic nominee’s attempt to get off the ballot in the U.S. Senate race, Monday, Sept. 15, 2014, in Topeka, Kan. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

Kobach argues that even if he’s forced to remove Taylor’s name from the ballot, Democrats are obligated under state law to find another nominee. The court did not address that issue during the arguments.

Pedro Irigonegaray, a Topeka attorney representing Taylor, said citing the law was enough to declare that someone is unable to serve. Eddie Greim, a Kansas City, Missouri attorney representing Kobach, argued that the candidate at least has to say specifically in writing that he or she is incapable of serving.

But Justice Carol Beier asked why citing the law wasn’t the same as declaring an inability to serve.

“Is there any other acceptable reason under the statute?” she said.

Both Taylor and Kobach were present in the courtroom Tuesday as the case was argued.

Four justices — a majority for the seven member court — were appointed by former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, including Beier and Biles. Two others were appointed by Sebelius’ predecessor, former moderate GOP Gov. Bill Graves. The seventh spot is open because conservative Gov. Sam Brownback’s first appointee won’t be sworn in until December, and a retired district judge is sitting with the court.

Joan Wagnon, Kansas Democratic Party Chair, issued a statement following the conclusion of oral arguments in the Taylor v. Kobach ballot challenge conducted this morning before the Kansas Supreme Court:

It’s clear that Kansans are demanding new leadership and an end to the partisan politics of Sam Brownback and Kris Kobach. The Kansas Democratic Party will continue to closely monitor this case as it proceeds through the court.

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