Gavel Grab

Editorial: Is Overhaul Plan ‘Political Payback’ for Kansas Court?

OklahomaLegislation passed by the Kansas legislature to increase state court funding — contingent upon overhauling administration of the judicial system — is criticized by a Wichita Eagle editorial.

The legislation, which state Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton Nuss said threatens an independent judiciary (see Gavel Grab), 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 judges.

The editorial says the overhaul warrants greater study and appears to be a step backward. Then it slams politicians pushing for the overhaul and urges a veto by Gov. Sam Brownback of the legislation:

“It also strikes many as political payback related to the high court’s school-funding or other decisions. In any case, it’s wrong for the Legislature to use its appropriations power to force unwanted and unwarranted systemic change on the judiciary. Though it’s highly doubtful that the governor will veto the bill, he should.” Read more

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Brownback: Legislators Should Fully Fund School Aid

Education aid to poor school districts in Kansas should be fully funded by legislators this year, Gov. Sam Brownback said on Wednesday, in the wake of a recent state Supreme Court mandate on public education funding.

“The equity issue raised by the court should be completely addressed this year,” Brownback said in a statement of “principles” for legislators, according to the Associated Press. “The solution to the equity problem will require significant new funding.”

Earlier this month, in a long-awaited decision, the Supreme Court found there were inequities in public school funding between districts across the state, and it set a July 1 deadline for the legislature to cure them. In advance of the opinion, there had been rumblings that some political leaders might seek to defy a court mandate, and as recently as this week, the state’s attorney general warned legislators of the risk if they defied the court.

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Top Kansas Judge Criticizes Overhaul Plan in Funding Bill

Chief Justice Nuss

Chief Justice Nuss

The Kansas Senate approved earlier this month a bill that would boost state court funding significantly, contingent upon overhauling administration of the judicial system. Now state Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton Nuss is warning that the package threatens an independent judiciary.

In a Kansas City Star op-ed, the Chief Justice lays out opposition to provisions that 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 judges.

All 31 chief judges oppose the decentralizing budget plan, and many support the way chief judges currently are selected, Justice Nuss writes. Nonetheless, the executive committee of the Kansas District Judges Association was persuaded to accept the plan in order to avoid court closures that would result without adequate funding, he says. He explains that the Supreme Court opposes the all-or-nothing package, and that some have questioned the package’s constitutionality. Read more

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After Kansas Ruling, a Break From Court Bashing

In advance of a Kansas Supreme Court ruling on public education spending, some legislators had threatened to rein in the high court’s authority. But after the ruling on Friday (see Gavel Grab), discussion of that topic was significantly muted.

A Wichita Eagle article was headlined, “Kansas Supreme Court’s school finance ruling seen by many as win for both sides.” When the Republican governor, the attorney general and Republican legislative leaders held a press conference on Friday, “there was no mention of constitutional amendments to strip the court of any authority over school funding or change the way justices are selected,” the newspaper reported.

The high court found there were inequities in public school funding, and it asked a lower court to reexamine the matter and ensure that school funding was equitable in districts across the state.  With its ruling, the high court effectively left enough “wiggle room” that advocates on both sides of the issue could claim a measure of victory, according to the newspaper. Read more

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Report: KS Court Ruling Issued, Constitutional Shutdown Avoided

In a long-awaited ruling, the Kansas Supreme Court found unconstitutional on Friday the state’s current public education funding levels. It sent the case back to a lower court for further review.

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

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All-or-Nothing Approach in New Kansas Court Funding Bill

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.

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How Will Kansas High Court Rule, and How Will Lawmakers React?

Chief Justice Nuss

Chief Justice Nuss

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.”

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Commentary: Bills Would Trim Authority of Kansas High Court

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.


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Top Judge Opposes Bills to Reduce Kansas High Court’s Authority

nuss-cjTwo bills that would reduce the authority of the Kansas Supreme Court were opposed on Monday by Chief Justice Lawton Nuss (photo) in testimony to the state Senate Judiciary Committee.

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

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Time Limits Bill not Needed, Kansas Judge Testifies

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. 

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