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Eagle editorial: Government sees some sunshine

  • Published Tuesday, July 1, 2014, at 6:43 a.m.

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Whatever the weather Tuesday in Kansas, the state will newly enjoy some sunshine – the kind that lets citizens better see and scrutinize their government. The law allowing public access to documents used to justify arrests and searches is one plus among some other actions by the 2014 Legislature taking effect.

Until now, Kansas has been the lone holdout across the nation in automatically sealing such warrant affidavits. Some prosecutors long argued that the safety and privacy of victims and witnesses would be jeopardized if the public had access to the documents that law enforcement uses when seeking arrest and search warrants. But that has not been the experience in other states or in the Fifth Judicial District in Chase and Lyon counties, where these affidavits have been open records for years.

The advocates for openness gained some key allies after it took Adlynn and Robert Harte $25,000 and a year to learn that their Leawood home had been wrongly targeted for a SWAT-style drug raid because of loose-leaf tea in their trash and their small hydroponic vegetable garden.

Both chambers overwhelmingly approved the bill in May after some resistance in the Senate – overcome in part because of the fervent championing of Rep. John Rubin, R-Shawnee, a former federal judge.

Now, after the arrest and search warrants have been executed, citizens will be able to request such records from a court, with prosecutors and defense lawyers given a chance to request that certain information be redacted or the documents be sealed for certain reasons.

As Robert Harte told the Kansas City Star, “They put the people ahead of the government. It’s a victory for the people.”

Another good move made by the 2014 Legislature that goes into effect Tuesday ups the state’s $250,000 limit on noneconomic damages in personal injury lawsuits – the first increase since 1988. The measure raises the cap to $300,000 for the next four years, then to $325,000 until 2022 and $350,000 after that. The business and medical communities supported the increase, which was prompted by a Kansas Supreme Court decision in 2012 in a lawsuit by a woman whose doctor surgically removed the wrong ovary.

Less laudable changes also take effect Tuesday, variously weakening the Supreme Court’s authority over the state’s judiciary, enabling school districts to hire individuals in some subject areas to teach even if they have no training as educators, and enabling more concealed and open carry of guns and knives. Tuesday also is the deadline the Supreme Court set for lawmakers to correct the funding inequities among school districts – an assignment the Legislature fulfilled to the lower court’s satisfaction.

With that constitutional crisis averted, thankfully, the day stands out for the new openness on arrest and search warrants, a change to be cheered for promoting transparent, accountable government.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman

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