After having endured legislators’ threats to ignore any Kansas Supreme Court ruling that the state must increase school funding, Chief Justice Lawton Nuss essentially issued an ultimatum of his own during Wednesday’s State of the Judiciary address: Cover the courts’ budget shortfall for fiscal 2015, he said, or court “employees will be sent home without pay and Kansas courts will close statewide sometime after July 1. The only question is for how long.”
It was another sobering sign of Kansas’ perilous fiscal situation in the wake of deep budget cuts and even deeper income-tax cuts, as well as of the unhealthy tension that exists between Kansas’ court system and its executive and legislative branches as the state awaits the high court’s school-finance decision.
As he made state history by delivering the speech from the Supreme Court chamber, and to an online audience via streaming video, the chief justice made a compelling case for adequate funding to enable the judiciary to fulfill what he characterized as its mission of “maintaining fair and impartial courts, enforcing Kansans’ rights and serving their needs.”
He hailed the House for passing a measure earlier in the day that would allow for some salary increases, while emphasizing the need for $8.25 million more funding for next fiscal year – no sure thing in the current political and fiscal environment.
Saying that “justice in Kansas is in some jeopardy,” Nuss described the roughly 5 percent loss of employees since 2010 because of a requirement to keep jobs vacant, and the stress felt by those who remain.
Nuss also pointed to Kansas’ 2012 ranking by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as fifth in the nation for the legal climate in its state courts, and warned that Kansas’ ability to administer justice could suffer with insufficient funding. He also outlined initiatives and goals being pursued as a result of a blue-ribbon commission’s work.
The Kansas judiciary is invested with the power to decide crucial questions affecting Kansans’ businesses, families, lives, freedom and safety. It must do all that with whatever funding the Legislature chooses to give it, and with employee costs accounting for 96 percent of its budget.
It might be good politics to refer to the courts as “unaccountable, opaque institutions” and to resolve to prevent them from closing schools, as Gov. Sam Brownback did last week in his State of the State address. But doing so serves neither justice nor Kansans.
And the independence and impartiality of the system remain at further risk, given renewed efforts to pass a constitutional amendment to scrap Kansas’ 55-year-old merit-selection system for Supreme Court justices.
Though House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, last year rebuffed Nuss’ request to deliver the annual State of the Judiciary address to the full Legislature, Kansans can hope that Merrick and other legislative leaders give the substance of this year’s message the attention and respect due a co-equal branch of government.
Then they need to give the courts the money they need to do their essential work.