Let’s hope 17 Kansas Senators never need a public defender

January 22, 2021 3:55 am

Carl Folsom hugs his wife after the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to send his Court of Appeals nomination to the full senate without any recommendation that he be confirmed. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Who believes in second chances — especially when a person has done nothing wrong?

This is a rhetorical question, today, because this column will not have the kind of concrete answer that would hold up in a court of law. Instead, it’s based on the kind of phantom wisdom that passes for a valid argument in the Kansas Senate.

On Thursday at the Capitol, senators considered — for the second time — Gov. Laura Kelly’s nomination of Carl Folsom to serve as a judge on the state’s 14-member Kansas Court of Appeals.

Folsom’s circular journey is a bit of a long story, which my Kansas Reflector colleague Sherman Smith has told poignantly. Folsom spent most of his career as a public defender, representing some of society’s worst people — as the U.S. Constitution says we’re obligated to do. The fact that he once defended a child pornographer gave some Republicans an excuse to vote against confirming him during a hasty special session last June.

In reality, by denying his confirmation, they were just punishing Kelly because she’d vetoed some of their bills.

So Kelly nominated him again.

And support for Folsom poured in from all over the state, including from conservative Republicans who praised his integrity and legal acumen. He was far-and-away the best nominee, they said. Given his career as a public defender, Folsom would bring crucial experience to a bench that deals mainly with criminal cases — especially since most of the appeals court’s other judges have limited experience in public defense.

“I’m here because I have faith in the state of Kansas, the state where my family has lived for over five generations,” Folsom told the members of the Judiciary Committee on Thursday morning.

He reminded them the court could use someone with his life experience.

“I’ve discussed previously my history growing up in childhood poverty, how at times I lived in homes with no running water, how I was lifted out of it by a single mother who was in nursing school,” he said. “I worked my way through college, working jobs like putting in water lines as a utility contractor employee, making pizza at Casey’s General Store, working as a roofer.”

He said he’d heard from colleagues who worried about what his rejection signaled for the legal profession in Kansas.

“After the vote in June, I was contacted by other public defenders who one day hoped to serve as judge. They were heartbroken,” he told the senators. “One told me that, ‘If you can’t make it, I will never stand a chance.’ ”

It was like watching someone forced to represent himself in his own appeal.

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, questions Carl Folsom during his confirmation hearing Thursday at the Statehouse. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Republican from Louisburg, asked whether Folsom thought he had a fair hearing 233 days earlier.

“Is the only difference you have additional letters and some newspaper articles,” she asked, “or is there something specific with regard to your resume and application that is different?”

Folsom said his qualifications were the same but the circumstances were different. The special session had been rushed, and the senators hadn’t had enough time to consider his qualifications, he said diplomatically.

Asked for closing comments, Folsom thanked the members of the legal community who rallied around him.

“They gave me another chance to be here, and I deeply appreciate that,” he said. “If the Senate confirms me, I promise to do my best to live up to positive words you’ve heard about me. I promise to take the job seriously, with humility and modesty.”

He also promised to “do the hard work” so that “the parties that come before me and the court will know they’ve been treated fairly.”

If only he’d been treated fairly himself.

When it came time for the full Senate to consider his nomination on Thursday afternoon, they once again declined his nomination.

Some of the naysayers rationalized their votes by arguing that 15 years serving mostly as a public defender hadn’t given Folsom enough “breadth” to serve on the court.

Too bad nobody had sworn them to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

In this case, a jury of Folsom’s peers — apparently the state’s entire legal community — had overwhelmingly recommended him. Instead, his fate was decided by 17 senators I now charge with letting a grudge against the governor cloud their judgment.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

C.J. Janovy
C.J. Janovy

C.J. Janovy is a veteran journalist with deep roots in the Midwest. She was the Opinion Editor for the Kansas Reflector from launch unit l June 2021. Before joining the Reflector, she was an editor and reporter at Kansas City’s NPR affiliate, KCUR. Before that, she edited the city’s alt-weekly newspaper, The Pitch, where Janovy and her writers won numerous local, regional and national awards. Her book “No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas” was among the Kansas Notable Books of 2019.