The Associated Press summed up the high court’s reasoning this way: “[T]he court said Kansas’ poor school districts were harmed when the state made the decision to cut certain payments when tax revenues declined during the Great Recession.”
In its unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court instructed the trial court to ensure that school funding was equitable in districts across the state. It asked the court to determine “promptly” an adequate level of funding, and established a deadline of July 1 for lawmakers to replenish two funds that are intended to help poorer school districts, through support for their capital improvements and general operations. Read more
In Kansas, where tensions between state legislators and the state Supreme Court have been noted (see Gavel Grab), the state Senate was to consider on Thursday a bill to increase funding for Kansas courts, as long as the state Supreme Court doesn’t strike down any portion of the bill if it became law.
Parts of the legislation would allow local courts to opt out of state Supreme Court control over budget preparation and submission; and take away the Supreme Court’s authority to pick chief district court and Court of Appeals judges.
The legislation was reported by Gavel to Gavel, a publication of the National Center for State Courts. The National Center is a Justice at Stake partner organization.
If the Kansas Supreme Court rules soon that the legislature is underfunding public education in an unconstitutional way, there could be a “shipwreck” ahead, journalist Davis Merritt writes in a Wichita Eagle commentary.
Here’s why, according to Merritt: Moderate Republicans have been ousted from the Republican-controlled legislature, and since a state Supreme Court ruling in 2005 that public education was underfunded, there’s been “an unprecedented level of anti-court antagonism on the part of the governor and his legislative followers, often expressed in apocalyptic suggestions about changing the way justices are appointed, slashing the court’s budget, or amending the constitution to strip the court of the power to interpret it. Or even flatly defying the court’s order, a true disaster of democracy.”
In the face of this dynamic, the high court is doing its job, Merritt, writes, as “the last shield we have against unilateral legislative tyranny.” He quotes Chief Justice Lawton Nuss as stating in January, “We do not take money from either side (in a legal dispute). Nor do we decide cases based on money’s distant cousins: threats and other pressures…. We fairly and impartially apply the law.”
There is anxiety in the Kansas Legislature over an upcoming state Supreme Court decision on public education funding, and that anxiety “has apparently spurred” the introduction of bills to trim the authority of the court and its Chief Justice, Martin Hawver contends in a Hawver News Co. column.
One bill prohibits any Kansas court from spending money to hire a lobbyist, although, Hawver asserts, there are “Not a lot of court-hired lobbyists around the Statehouse.” Another would strip the Chief Justice of his authority to appoint 31 judicial district chief judges (see Gavel Grab), and a third would diminish the Chief Justice’s authority by having the Court of Appeals choose its own chief judge.
There is resolution to dismantle the judicial nominating commission that screens candidates for the state Supreme Court and recommends finalists to the governor for appointment, and another to switch to election of Supreme Court justices.
Chief Justice Nuss questioned whether legislation to take away the high court’s authority over the state court system’s budget, and allow 31 judicial budgets administered by each district instead, might be unconstitutional.
“So if this 37-year-old unified court system is to possibly be changed, why not let the people of Kansas change their mandate through a majority of a statewide vote on a constitutional amendment?” he asked, according to the Topeka Capital-Journal. “Or if there is absolutely no question about the constitutionality of SB 364, then at a minimum why not have a thorough study of this proposed change — as was done in the late 1960s and again in the early ’70s?” Read more
Judge Patrick McAnany of the Kansas Court of Appeals told the state Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday that legislation to set time limits for judges to render their decisions is not needed.
The legislation is sponsored by the committee (see Gavel Grab). Judges know there are concerns about timeliness and are working to get each other to speed up the pace, the judge told the panel, according to an Associated Press article.
There are similar laws with time limits for judges in place in six other states, Senate Vice President Jeff King said, and under those laws, states can hold back judges’ pay if they do not render decisions in a timely fashion.
The legislative and executive branches in Kansas are both taking aim at the judiciary, a Lawrence Journal-World editorial says, and that’s dangerous. “[I]t’s important that it not be allowed to boil over to the detriment of the state,” the editorial cautions.
Legislators and the governor have signaled tension with the judiciary over state court rulings on the funding of public schools and even with the selection method for picking judges. The editorial focuses especially on recent remarks by Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback in his annual state of the state address.
Brownback said it was the legislature’s job to fund schools (see Gavel Grab). He went on to add, apparently jabbing at the judiciary, “Too many decisions are made by unaccountable, opaque institutions.” The editorial offers the following rejoinder:
“So are the courts really ‘unaccountable’ and ‘opaque’? Judges in all of the state courts are accountable to Kansas voters who have the opportunity to either elect or decide whether to retain them at regular intervals. And the courts are hardly opaque. Most of their proceedings are public, and testimony and decisions are painstakingly documented.”
Cille King and David Burress, co-presidents of the League of Women Voters of Lawrence-Douglas County in Kansas, are voicing strong concerns about Gov. Sam Brownback’s interest in dismantling a 60-year-old merit selection process for picking Kansas Supreme Court justices. They write their views in a letter to the editor of the Lawrence Journal-World.
Last year, following a three-year study, the League of Women Voters-Kansas said the existing merit selection system provides the best foundation for choosing judges independent of politics, their letter says. It continues:
“Brownback would have us step back 60 years and select justices as the U.S. Government does — a system so gridlocked that there are 100 vacancies in the federal court system. Only one other state, New Jersey, selects its justices in this manner, and Gov. [Chris] Christie has similar gridlock. While our governor rejects most federal government policies, judicial selection is clearly the wrong one to adopt.” Read more
Legislation sponsored by the Kansas Senate Judiciary Committee would set time limits for judges to render their decisions. An editorial in the Hays (Ks.) Daily News criticized the bill as apparently blurring the separation of powers among government’s branches and said, “Choosing to ignore the intentional walls for one purpose likely will open a floodgate of unintended consequences.”
The editorial called the measure “a bad idea” and made a pitch for adequate funding of state courts. “The judicial branch already has standards in place to ensure speedy trials and timely decisions,” the editorial said. “Rather than potentially unconstitutional meddling, legislators instead should properly fund the courts to ensure they remain open. That likely would have greater effect.”
Perhaps Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff King, who is pushing the bill, was “emboldened” by the legislature’s action last year to dismantle merit selection in the naming of Court of Appeals judges, the editorial noted.
The Kansas legislation is similar to legislation filed in the New York Assembly, according to Gavel to Gavel, a publication of the National Center for State Courts. The Center is a JAS partner organization.
How many ways are there for Kansas legislators to target impartial state judges?
With tensions running high between some legislators and state courts, a number of court-bashing proposals already have been floated, and Gavel Grab has mentioned them: lowering the mandated retirement age; ending the Supreme Court’s review of criminal cases; and eliminating merit selection of Supreme Court justices, to give the governor direct appointment power. This week, still another idea was unveiled in legislation sponsored by the House Judiciary Committee: to allow judges — including justices on the Supreme Court — to be subject to recall elections.
The legislation was reported by Gavel to Gavel, a publication of the National Center for State Courts. It said that since 1974, Kansas judges have been exempted from a constitutional amendment that provides for recall elections for “[e]very public officer holding either by election or appointment.” Read more