Kansas Chief Justice Lawton Nuss won’t address the Legislature next year, leading a top Democrat to think it’s another sign of a growing rift between conservative lawmakers and the courts.
Incoming Kansas House Speaker Ray Merrick has turned down a request from the state’s chief justice to address a joint session of the Legislature to present the State of the Judiciary report.
Merrick, a Johnson County Republican, asked Nuss to put the report in writing so it could be considered during the session.
“It’s just another thing to take up time,” Merrick said. “I just think it’s time that could be put to better use on other things.”
However, state Rep. Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat and House minority leader, thinks it’s a sign of increasing antipathy between conservative Republican lawmakers and the state courts, which on some occasions have been criticized for being too liberal.
“Many right-wing Republicans don’t view the judiciary as a co-equal branch of government,” Davis said. “It doesn’t surprise me that the incoming legislative leadership has decided not to let them be heard.”
Nuss alerted employees of the judicial branch to Merrick’s decision in a letter he circulated last week. He said in the letter he wouldn’t question Merrick’s decision and would put his report in writing. He added that other options were being considered for presenting the report orally at another venue.
It was unclear how much of a longstanding tradition was being broken by not allowing Nuss to speak to a joint legislative session as he had for the last two years. A spokesman for the Supreme Court said there have been times in the past when the chief justice hasn’t addressed a joint session of the Legislature.
In recent years, there has been some rawness in the relationship between the Legislature and the judiciary, such as last year, when Nuss closed the courts for a day because of legislative inaction on the budget.
At that time, some lawmakers said other funds could have been used to keep the courts open while the Legislature resolved its budget dispute.
There’s also lingering resentment over the Supreme Court’s 2005 ruling that forced the state to spend millions more on schools. As recently as last year, the Kansas House made an unsuccessful run at a constitutional amendment establishing that the courts — and the governor — had no authority to direct the Legislature to spend money.
And this year, the Legislature is expected to debate proposals that would give more power over judicial appointments to the governor.
Merrick said nothing should be read into his decision, which was made in consultation with the Senate president.
He pointed out there have been years when an oral report was not given, although his predecessor, Mike O’Neal, had agreed to the presentation the last couple of years.
Merrick added that he has received complaints that it was a “gigantic waste of time.”
“People are going read into it whatever they want to read into it,” Merrick said. “I can’t prevent that.”