State lawmakers find new ways each week to show contempt for Kansas’ courts, as if a relationship already at risk of constitutional crisis over school finance needed more heat.
In the midst of the Legislature’s hasty repeal this month of the 23-year-old school-finance formula, which is central to school districts’ ongoing lawsuit against the state, a three-judge panel said it could act to “preserve the status quo” while the case is considered.
That set off lawmakers’ talk about the potential “ramifications” of another court order to dramatically increase K-12 funding – say, that it would hit the state budget hard and the judiciary might “share in that pain,” or that a constitutional amendment giving the governor free rein to pick Kansas Supreme Court justices might newly find favor in the House as well as the Senate.
This week saw the introduction of Senate Bill 297, which aims to spell out grounds for the impeachment of Supreme Court justices. Its justifications for why a justice might be ousted from the bench by the Legislature include not only criminal and unethical conduct but also “attempting to subvert fundamental laws and introduce arbitrary power” and “attempting to usurp the power of the legislative or executive branch of government.”
Many lawmakers, fuming over court rulings that school funding is unconstitutionally low, likely would declare the high court guilty of those counts already – though the judiciary has actually been doing its job of ensuring the level of state K-12 funding fulfills the mandate in the state constitution.
Meanwhile, Senate leaders put 2016-17 court funding in a bill separate from the rest of the state budget. That’s a worrying sign of senators’ desire not only to give it special scrutiny but perhaps also wed it to policy changes related to judicial selection and other issues. The House version of the overall state budget has the judiciary within it, though neither chamber has demonstrated a willingness to increase the funding for the next two years to the levels the judicial branch says are needed just to pay for basic operations.
The Legislature’s other available tools of attempted intimidation include pending bills to lower justices’ mandatory retirement age and to replace the Kansas Court of Appeals with separate civil and criminal appellate courts. Waiting in the wings: proposed constitutional amendments that, if approved by the Legislature and voters, would have Kansas switch to direct partisan election of appellate judges, allow recall elections of judges statewide and make it harder for Supreme Court justices to survive retention votes.
The biggest concern for Kansans is not the troubling lack of respect shown by one branch of state government for another – as unseemly and unnecessary as it is – but how that might lead to further assaults on the funding, authority and independence of the state judiciary.
The courts must have all three in order to serve Kansans and justice properly.
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman