Brownback calls for special legislative session to address questions on ‘Hard 50’ law
Topeka Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has called for a special legislative session starting Sept. 3 to address legal questions about the state's so-called "Hard 50" sentencing law.
State Attorney General Derek Schmidt had asked for a special session because of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down a similar federal sentencing law.
“The ‘Hard 50’ sentence is a vital public safety tool that has been in place for more than 10 years,” Brownback said in a statement released today. “The sudden absence of the ‘Hard 50’ sentence poses a real and present danger to the public safety of all Kansans.”
Republican leaders of the Kansas Senate quickly issued a statement supporting the call for a special session.
“I appreciate the assessment of the situation by the Governor and the Attorney General, and support their decision,” Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican said in the statement. “After learning about the circumstances of the pending cases, and recognizing the critical time element involved with the appeals process, it’s clear we must act. The Senate will respond quickly and efficiently to protect public safety.”
Under the Kansas statute, people convicted of premeditated murder can be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for 50 years if the trial judge finds certain aggravating factors. Otherwise, those defendants are typically given a sentence of 25 years to life.
The U.S. Supreme Court, however, issued a ruling in June saying that when statutes like the Hard 50 law call for enhanced penalties, the facts that justify the more severe sentence must be decided by the jury, not a judge.
Days after the Supreme Court issued that ruling, it remanded a Kansas case back to the state supreme court to be reconsidered.
That case involved Matthew Astorga, who was convicted in Leavenworth County and given the Hard 50 sentence for the 2008 murder of Ruben Rodriguez.
“While returning to Topeka for a special session is often a last resort, crafting legislation to keep our constituents safe from violent offenders is the proper response to the Alleyne Decision," Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, a Hutchinson Republican, said, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Alleyne v. United States. "Legislative action should be taken in a reasonable period of time and in a bipartisan manner.”
During a news conference Thursday, Schmidt said there were potentially dozens of other cases in Kansas that could be affected by the ruling.
One of those involved a murder-for-hire scheme in which the victim was shot execution-style in the back of the head in front of her child. It was a case of mistaken identity, Schmidt said, and the victim was not the intended target.
Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson's office said there are no local convictions that would be affected by the decision.
Special sessions are rare for the Kansas Legislature. The last one was held in the summer of 2005 to address a Kansas Supreme Court decision declaring the state school funding formula unconstitutional.