In recent weeks, Gov. Sam Brownback and Kansas legislators have questioned the authority of the Supreme Court to decide how much money the state should give schools. On Wednesday, Chief Justice Lawton Nuss seemed to push back a little in his State of the Judiciary address.
“We do not take money from either side, nor do we decide cases from money’s distant cousins: threats and other pressures,” he said, after sharing a story about judicial corruption in France from Melvin Belli’s “My Life on Trial.” The chief justice clutched the copy of the book he’s had since his days in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Nuss offered Kansas courts as an alternative. “We fairly and impartially apply the law,” he said.
The justice went on to focus most of his speech on the funding of the judicial branch rather than schools, saying courts could close in July if more money is not appropriated for them.
Speaking to reporters afterward, Nuss declined to say whether any of his remarks were aimed at Brownback, who in his State of the State address last week warned the court not to close schools as a way to enforce its still pending decision on school funding.
Nuss was a bit clearer when asked about legislation designed to remove the court’s authority. “Well, my hope would be that they would leave those activities of the judicial branch alone,” he said.
He also emphasized the court’s openness in his address. It was the first State of the Judiciary to stream live on the Internet.
Brownback had said in his State of the State address that too many decisions were made by “opaque institutions.”
Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, who served as the state’s attorney in a 2005 school finance case, called the debate over the court’s authority over school funding a difference in legal opinion and cautioned against hyperbole.
“I don’t think there’s any threats out there the Legislature is putting on the courts or vice versa,” King said.
Speaking about funding for courts, Nuss said the money appropriated for the judicial branch in 2015 is $8.25 million below its base budget request and $19 million below what he believes the court requires to operate efficiently.
He noted that 90 percent of the judicial branch’s budget goes to personnel costs.
“However you shuffle those cards,” Nuss said, “if some additional money is not provided, employees will be sent home without pay.” He said the courts will have to close in July if more money is not appropriated.
“The only question is for how long,” he said.
Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, a member of the House Judiciary Committee who is also a practicing attorney, agreed with Nuss’s assessment and warned that the courts’ closing would have a huge impact on Kansans.
“It’s not the big cases you read in the paper, it’s all the little things: the evictions, the divorce proceedings, the child support stuff, all of the things that people just do every day in the courthouse,” said Ward. “It’s just ridiculous that we are still in the fourth year of not funding the judiciary, a co-equal branch of government.”
King said the situation is not nearly that dire. His committee has legislation in the works that will provide $6.2 million to modernize the court’s filing and case management system. King said implementing these changes and addressing waste in other areas in the judicial system will help close budget gaps without the need to close the courts.
King also reiterated that the $8.25 million figure Nuss used repeatedly comes from the judiciary’s budget request and doesn’t represent money cut by the Legislature.
The House did approve a pay raise for judicial employees – their first since 2008 – a short time before the speech began. Nuss made sure to thank the Legislature.
“To me the most important thing he raised was wanting to work with the Legislature,” King said.