The Kansas Women Attorneys Association meets this week in Lindsborg – for the 26th consecutive year – and again has stretched the measure of its gathering by landing a keynote speaker of national repute.
On Friday, July 17, Deanell Reece Tacha, dean of the prestigious Pepperdine Law School, will deliver a keynote address to the Association at 7 p.m. at the Burnett Center on the Bethany College campus. Reece is renowned among the nation’s more learned jurists, and what she has to say in these complicated, challenging times is bound to be important. The Association has invited the public to attend at no charge.With 25 years as a judge in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals and a list of awards and accomplishments longer than the columns on this page, Tacha (pronounced Ta-Ha) needs no boost for her credentials. And her history includes family, a name – Reece – that rings with resonance through the state’s more traditional Republican history.
Tacha’s parents, the late H.W. “Bill” Reece and her mother, Marynell, were longtime pillars of what had been fundamental Republican politics in America – “Eisenhower” Republicans, to use the shorthand. The Reeces were on a first-name basis with presidents, governors, and the senior brokers on Capitol Hill. They were a kind who had no need to advertise their connections, equally comfortable at the White House or the corner store. Bill and Marynell were of a time when Republican seemed synonymous with decency, the kind of governing that promoted self-reliance without insisting on it, offering help to those who needed it, often before they could ask.
Kansas Republicans once were of a time when politics put public interest above self-interest, a party of (to begin the list) organized labor, of hot lunches in schools, of self-immunization against disease, of public works (interstate highways, flood control, revenue sharing).
The Reeces were party principals in the heady days before Republican became a dirty word, when the party celebrated national legends at the local level, when Kansas was home to Frank Carlson and Jim Pearson, to Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum, when it was the proud place of Ike’s boyhood and William Allen White’s Gazette.
Bill and Marynell Reece owned and operated a Construction Company based in Scandia, in Republic County just west of Belleville, along the hilly, high sweep of the Ozark Plateau over the state’s northern tier. They were close friends with Republicans who made headlines, contributed heavily to their campaigns and gave countless hours to their causes, whether an election or, in one special effort, a Dole commitment called the Americans with Disabilities Act.
DEANELL Tacha was reared in the rich environment of Kansas politics before the Republicans lurched – or were yanked – hard to starboard. Deanell’s parents had become friends with a young lawyer from Russell who, in 1960, hoped to succeed Wint Smith, a congressman from Mankato who had represented the state’s 6th district for 14 years and wanted to retire. McDill “Huck” Boyd, of Phillipsburg, the Republicans’ pater familia and national committeeman, was also a good “Huck was driving through Russell past the courthouse late one night and saw a light on,” Marynell said in an interview in 2003. “If there was a county official working that late at night Huck wanted to meet him … so he stopped his car, went in and found out it was the county attorney, Bob Dole. He drove home and said to Marie, ‘I think I’ve found a young man who would be a good candidate for congress.’”
Dole would go on to win a contested primary, serve eight years in the U.S. House before succeeding Frank Carlson in the Senate in 1968 and serving there (including two terms as Senate majority leader) until he resigned to run for a third time for president, in 1996.
From the ‘60s to the turn of the century, Kansas Republicans acquired prominence and power in Washington. No other state had commanded such influence. Broadcasting executive Bob Wells, of Garden City, land of the revered Cliff Hope, had been chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Wayne Angell, an economics professor at Ottawa University, and who lost the 1978 Senate primary election to Kassebaum, was governor of the Federal Reserve Board from 1986 to 1994. Huck Boyd had been chief of security for the party’s national convention in 1976 in Kansas City. On Capitol Hill, the state’s delegation would include a Senate majority leader, a ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate’s ambassador to the United Nations (James Pearson), and a chairman of the House Agriculture Committee (Pat Roberts). In 1994, two Kansans became the first women to head standing congressional committees: Rep. Jan Meyers, of Kansas’s 3rd congressional district, became chairman of the House Committee on Small Business; and Nancy Kassebaum, chair of the Senate Labor Committee.
In those earlier, mist-laden times, a Republican in Kansas could be for welfare (Dole and George McGovern were the fathers of food stamps) and government aid (the ADA, farm subsidies, Medicare) and proud of both. And during it all, the Reeces held certain influence: Bill, a longtime senior political advisor and fund raiser, and Marynell a Republican national committeewoman (1972-1988).
Deanell watched it all happen and, at times, took part: In her early teens, she was, according to her mother, a charter member of “Dole’s Dolls,” a group of attractive young women who often campaigned with Dole, especially during that first campaign.
Among their assignments, pouring gallons of “Dole” pineapple juice, in an attempt to separate Bob Dole from Phillip Doyle, one of his primary election opponents. It worked.Deanell accomplished more than a lot: KU graduate (1968), Michigan law degree, White House Fellow, Washington law practice, returning to KU in 1974 to teach law and later, vice chancellor for academic affairs.
ON NOMINATION by President Reagan, Tacha in 1985 was named to the U. S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Denver, and served as chief judge from 2001 to 2008. She is the first woman to become a federal judge for Kansas. More honors: national president of the American Inns of Courts, holding high ranks in the American Bar Association, receiving the 26th Annual Edward J. Devitt Distinguished Service award, the highest honor given to a federal judge for lifetime service; member, U.S. Sentencing Commission, recommending to Congress changes in federal sentencing policy. In 2010, she was named the Native Sons and Daughters’ Kansan of the Year.
In 2011 Tacha retired from the federal bench and became dean of the Pepperdine School of Law in Malibu, California.
THIS IS a difficult time for government in Kansas and especially for the judiciary, a branch under assault from a governor who loathes the courts for (as he sees it) contrary rulings on abortion, education funding, and same sex marriage, for starters. The governor, with legislators eager to please, would dismantle the system and have judges elected through campaigns financed by his friends, with any appeals fixed by justices he has named himself; to this end, legislation is in the works. The judiciary then would not be a branch of government but a feeble, corrupted limb bent to the governor’s will. The governor’s way has no tolerance for non-believers, for those, including the courts, declining to march lock-step to his cadence. The law be damned.
We might hear what Deanell Tacha has to say about those branches of government; if separate and somewhat equal, for how long?
With the legislative and executive nearly as one in Kansas, we are left with only the judiciary for equity, stability. Are the courts our remaining voice for independence? We are moving toward a system that no longer governs but rules, a system that belittles the thought in the individual and glorifies the thought in a crowd. Or mob.
We long for a return to the kind of government of which the Reeces were once a part, when independence was essential in the two-party system, when the system had fluidity, a benign inconsistency, and indisputable grace. A time when government would help the citizenry rather than suppress it. The courts, it seems, are our only hope.
– JOHN MARSHALL