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Kansas Judicial Branch

The Kansas Supreme Court
301 SW 10th Avenue
Topeka Kansas 66612-1507

Office of Judicial Administration
Fax:  785.296.7076
Email: info@kscourts.org

Appellate Clerk's Office
Fax:  785.296.1028
Email: appellateclerk@kscourts.org

History of the Kansas Appellate Courts

If you ever wondered why Kansas’ appellate courts are organized the way they are, you need to begin by looking at our state’s territorial history, when only about 100,000 U.S. citizens called Kansas home.

The first organized government in the territory that is now Kansas was created by an act of Congress on May 30, 1854. The act created a supreme court, composed of a chief justice and two justices, appointed to four-year terms by the president. Any two justices were sufficient to constitute a quorum and the territory’s supreme court was directed to hold sessions at least once a year at the seat of our government. The first session of the Territorial Supreme Court was July 30, 1855, at the Shawnee Manual Labor School.

Members of the Territorial Supreme Court had dual roles. 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. In some cases, appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was available.

Kansas became a state on January 29, 1861, and the Kansas Constitution created a Supreme Court consisting of one chief justice and two associate justices elected to six-year terms from the state at large. Kansas’ population at that time was slightly more than 100,000.

By 1885, our population had grown to more than 1.2 million, and the three-justice Kansas Supreme Court, sufficient at the beginning of our statehood, was hopelessly inadequate. The Legislature proposed amending the Kansas Constitution to increase the number of justices to five immediately and to seven later. Voters did not pass the amendment.

Two years later, the Legislature tried another approach. They authorized the governor (with the Senate’s consent) to appoint three Kansans “of high character for legal learning and personal worth" as Supreme Court commissioners to help with a vast number of pending cases. The commissioners were appointed to three-year terms with no provision for reappointment. Their purpose was to provide temporary help until the number of justices could be increased. In 1889, the Legislature again proposed a constitutional amendment to provide seven justices and the proposal was defeated in the 1890 election. The Legislature then extended the terms of the commissioners until 1893.

Between 1887 and 1893, the commissioners prepared about the same number of opinions as did the Supreme Court, doubling the number of cases that could have been handled by the court alone. Even then, delays were great, with some cases waiting three years before a decision was reached. In 1895, the Legislature addressed the problem by creating the Kansas Courts of Appeal. This also was a temporary method to help, as the act creating the Courts of Appeal also provided for their expiration in 1901.

Finally, in 1900, a constitutional amendment was approved by Kansas voters to increase the number of justices to seven—the same number as today. However, at the turn of the century, the justices sat in two divisions, with three making a quorum in either division. In cases where the entire court was ordered to hear a case, four justices made a quorum. The justices were still elected to six-year terms, and the justice with the most seniority served as the chief justice. New rules adopted in 1903 did away with the separate divisions and, from that time, cases were heard by the entire court.

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

The Court of Appeals was re-established in 1977 as a seven-member intermediate appellate court. It was expanded to 10 members in 1987 and has 14 members today. Persons who lose their appeal at the Court of Appeals may petition the Supreme Court to review the court’s decision, but the Supreme Court is not required to do so.