Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton Nuss said Friday that the judicial branch is working hard to improve efficiency to prevent situations like last year's historic court shutdown.
"When our budget is cut or when we don't have enough money, it is our people who suffer. They're the ones who have to get sent home," Nuss told members of the Wichita Pachyderm Club. "Unfortunately that also comes at the expense of Kansas citizens, because when we have no money and we have to close the courts, the citizens no longer have access to justice."
The 266 judges and 1,600 court support personnel statewide handle 500,000 cases a year, Nuss said.
To address the ongoing issue of court costs, the Supreme Court has commissioned a $200,000 consultant study of how judges and other court workers spend their time. In addition, a blue-ribbon panel has been gathering public input on ways to improve the courts, Nuss said.
Together, the two initiatives are called "Project Pegasus," after the winged horse in Greek mythology.
Judges and court workers recently completed the data-collection portion of the study. They logged their time for two months, writing down tasks they had performed and how long it took them to do the work.
That data will be analyzed by the National Center for State Courts, a national nonprofit group that works to improve the justice system and lobbies on behalf of courts at the federal level.
That analysis will be presented to the 24-member blue ribbon panel, which will then make recommendations if changes are warranted.
Nuss said he expects the consultant reports and panel recommendations to be completed by the end of the year.
The Legislature did not provide funding for the consultant study.
Nuss said most of the cost will be paid from salary and benefit savings accrued after appellate Judge Jerry Elliott died in April 2010 and former Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Davis died in August.
"That's where a big chunk of that $200,000 is coming from," he said.
Improving court efficiency is important work, he said.
In addition to the four days courts closed last year — a first in Kansas history — courts have been under a hiring freeze since December 2008, Nuss said.
Right now, 75 to 80 positions are being intentionally held vacant, he said.
"Now those of you who have an economic background or a business background will say, "Well, so what? That's what you do when economic times are bad,'" Nuss said. "The problem with that analogy is that our orders are not down, because we still, unfortunately, have people in Kansas who are committing sex crimes against children. We still have citizens getting injured or killed. We still have business people whose contracts are getting breached — and they are all in need of justice."
Members of the club, one of the area's most active Republican groups, said they were somewhat disappointed that the chief justice did not take questions from the audience.
"I'm very pleased the third branch of government is making the effort to come out and interact with the citizens," said John Todd, vice president of the club. But without any question-and-answer time, he said, "you actually miss a very important part of the interaction... what the people think."
"I'm interested in judicial behavior more than I am the structure," said Ken Ciboski, a club member and professor of political science at Wichita State University. "Do the justices take into account the political environment they operate in? That's what I'd like to have heard today."