The weapons are silent court papers rather than bombs, but make no mistake: The war over the independence and authority of the Kansas judiciary is escalating. The courts’ ability to function risks serious injury, as does the separation of powers.
This month the judiciary has stepped up to respond in a confrontation gaining national notice:
Judge Larry Solomon, Kingman-based chief judge for the 30th Judicial District, followed up on his earlier lawsuit over the controversial 2014 law tying court funding to policy reforms. The law took away the Kansas Supreme Court’s power to control budgets and pick chief administrative district judges, though the state constitution gives the Supreme Court “general administrative authority over all courts in this state.” The law also said all judicial funding would vanish if a court found the reforms to be unconstitutional – coercive language duplicated in the just-passed judicial budget for the next two years.
Solomon’s July 8 brief asks the Shawnee County District Court to strike down the 2014 law and threatens to similarly challenge the two-year judicial budget, arguing that the change in how chief district judges are chosen is “an unconstitutional violation of the separation-of-powers doctrine” and tying it to funding is a “naked act of intimidation” that threatens public confidence in a fair and impartial judiciary. (The state has asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing in part that the Legislature acted within its constitutional authority and did not “significantly interfere” with the court’s administrative power.)
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Another salvo came July 1 in a separate legal case and setting, when the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a portion of a different 2014 law that had set a 180-day deadline for delivery of court decisions – lawmakers’ overreaching attempt to force the courts to hurry justice. In the case, related to a convicted sex offender in Mitchell County, the high court said that and other deadlines for state court decisions violated the state constitution’s separation-of-powers doctrine.
The governor and Legislature picked this unnecessary, reckless fight. In the wake of Supreme Court decisions he disliked, Gov. Sam Brownback has been unable to find the votes to amend the state constitution and give himself freer rein to select justices. Instead, he and conservative lawmakers have sought other ways to weaken and bully the high court while trying to downplay the reforms.
But two branches of government should not be ganging up on the third for any reason, least of all partisan spite.
Matthew Menendez of the Brennan Center for Justice, which is helping represent Solomon, told the Lawrence Journal-World: “Everybody is talking about Kansas. People are terrified that this could happen in their own state. This is being seen as a template where state courts around the country could come under attack. Nobody has seen anything like it.”
It’s not premature for Kansans to worry about their court system, which needs to be funded and unencumbered in order to serve citizens and justice.
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman