While Kansans were focused on the twists and turns of school finance last week, lawmakers made an unnecessary and historic change in how the state’s district courts operate, coercively tying the reforms to badly needed funding.
Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton R. Nuss warned this was coming, objecting in an Eagle commentary last month to “the diffusion of the unified court system’s centralized authority in exchange for money to keep courts open.” He also noted that Kansas voters opted in 1972 to add this sentence to the state constitution: “The Supreme Court shall have general administrative authority over all courts in this state.”
That clear-cut instruction has meant a single budget for the entire judicial branch controlled by the Supreme Court. Yet House Bill 2338, which cleared both chambers and has gone to Gov. Sam Brownback, allows the chief judge of each of the state’s 31 judicial districts to submit and control his own budget.
The new legislation also allows judges to select the chief judge for their own district court, further eroding the Supreme Court’s authority.
Plus, the bill includes some significant increases in docket fees, raising the cost of Kansans’ access to their courts.
In his commentary, Nuss expressed no opinion on the legislative package’s constitutionality, which might become a question for the court to decide. But he aptly asked whether this legislation reflected the will of the people. He also took issue with the “glaring” offer of money “in direct exchange for judicial branch restructuring,” claiming the Kansas District Judges’ Association was told that if it wanted the extra funds for court operations it would support the package deal.
Though several Sedgwick County District Court judges offered testimony favoring the provisions on budgetary authority and chief judge elections, the changes drew opposition from other judges as well as the Kansas Bar Association and other attorney and court employee groups.
At the very least, such a legislative overhaul of the judicial system’s administration deserved more thoughtful study and public debate. The measures bundled together in the final bill never even were considered by the House Judiciary Committee. The Kansas Association of Defense Counsel, for example, noted that the 1970s unification of court administration in Kansas was meant to remedy “a court system that was archaic in its multiplicity of courts, preservation of concurrent jurisdictions, and waste of fiscal resources.” This looks like a step backward.
It also strikes many as political payback related to the high court’s school-funding or other decisions. In any case, it’s wrong for the Legislature to use its appropriations power to force unwanted and unwarranted systemic change on the judiciary. Though it’s highly doubtful that the governor will veto the bill, he should.