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Kansas court system furloughs not ruled out by bill

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, April 13, 2014, at 9:36 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, April 14, 2014, at 10:17 a.m.

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A committee studying court funding last year said that unless the Kansas Legislature comes up with more money, court employees could face 10 days of unpaid furlough in the upcoming year as the state’s judicial branch dealt with an $8.25 million budget shortfall.

A bill passed by the Kansas Legislature this month makes up $2 million of that shortfall, and it is expected to generate $4 million to $6.2 million in extra filing fees during the fiscal year that begins July 1. The first $3.1 million of the extra fee revenue, however, would go to a new electronic filing system, not toward reducing the shortfall.

Court officials are reluctant to say that the bill, which Gov. Sam Brownback is expected to sign into law, will solve the courts’ financial problems.

“Can I tell you there’s not not a chance of furloughs? No,” said Sedgwick County Chief Judge James Fleetwood. “It’s honestly just too early to tell.”

Lisa Taylor, spokeswoman for the Kansas Supreme Court, agreed. She said no one knows how much money the increased court fees will bring in.

“The challenge is that we are not absolutely certain how much money will be generated,” she said. “We won’t know until we know.”

Taylor also said that as long as the Legislature remains in session, funding of the state’s court system will remain fluid.

What is clear is that the bill strips the Supreme Court of its power to appoint chief judges in the state’s 31 judicial districts, and it shifts responsibility for setting court budgets from the Supreme Court to the individual districts.

Because of the way the law is written, the Supreme Court cannot invalidate the provisions of the law that strip it of some of its powers without also invalidating the provision that generates additional court funding.

A provision that calls for the 31 judicial districts to pick their own chief judges would appear to have little impact in Sedgwick County, where local judges typically elect a leader who is approved by the Supreme Court. The bill simply strips the Supreme Court of its power to overrule the local decision.

Taylor said the provision that calls for each district to develop and administer its own budget is troubling to many court officials. Running the courts with a statewide budget brings flexibility to the process, she said. If a small judicial district incurs an unforeseen expense – for example, the need to hold a capital murder trial – there may be no way to meet the need.

“When it’s managed centrally, we can shift things around as needed in response to changing demands,” Taylor said. “Having district budgets, we may not have that flexibility.”

The Legislature expects the revised fee schedule to generate up to $6.2 million in extra funds a year, primarily through the imposition of a $195 charge for filing a motion for summary judgment. Under the current system, there is no fee for filing such motions, which are often filed in civil cases by parties who want a judge to rule in their favor before a case goes to trial.

No one tracks the number of such motions that are filed every year in Kansas courts, Taylor said, so the Legislature based its revenue estimate on federal court filings.

Fleetwood said the filing of summary judgment motions is optional, and he said the $195 filing fee could mean some lawyers simply will not file them. There is no way to predict how the new fee will affect filings, he said.

No matter how much the new fee structure generates, the first $3.1 million by law will go to a new Electronic Filing and Centralized Case Management Fund, which will be used to create and manage a statewide electronic case management system.

Taylor said the ultimate goal of that project is to build a statewide court system that would, among other things, allow court clerks in one part of the state to process files from other parts of the state when work backlogs occur.

Reach Hurst Laviana at 316-268-6499 or hlaviana@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @hlaviana.

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