Magistrates’ expertise at heart of questions over bill

District magistrate judges could see their responsibilities expanded if new legislation passes, something Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, says would save Kansas courts both time and money.

But some in the legal community have expressed concern that magistrates, who are not required to have law degrees, might lack the expertise to preside over certain cases.

The Senate Judiciary Committee held the first of two hearings Monday regarding a series of bills that would enact recommendations from a 2011 Blue Ribbon Commission that studied how Kansas courts could be streamlined.

The bills are a passion project of sorts for King, who chairs the committee and served on the commission.

King has said that the Blue Ribbon reforms would make Kansas courts more efficient and save millions of dollars. Chief Justice Lawton Nuss has warned that if the courts do not receive an additional $8.25 million in funding, they would likely be forced to close in July.

The first bill the committee considered would expand the responsibilities of district magistrate judges and would allow them to hear civil cases such as uncontested divorces if the parties consent. Currently, these cases must be heard by district judges.

Judge Shelia Hochhauser, president of the District Magistrate Judge Association, told the committee about how district judges are spread thin, required to travel between towns to hear simple cases that require 15 minutes. She said magistrates are willing to help lighten their load.

But the bill does not have the full backing of Judge Thomas Foster, president of the Kansas District Judges Association.

Magistrates are not required to have law degrees. A high school diploma suffices. Foster praised the work of magistrates but compared the difference between them and law-trained judges to the difference between a doctor and a nurse’s aide. He worried that some might lack the legal expertise needed for increased responsibilities and asked the committee to amend the bill to require that magistrates have law degrees.

“Is it your testimony that someone who is not law-trained is not capable of understanding the law?” Sen. Greg Smith, R-Overland Park, asked the judge.

Foster said that training made a difference.

Judge Patrick McAnany, testifying on behalf of the Judicial Branch, put it succinctly. “I think a legal education does make a difference,” McAnany said. “If not, a lot of people waste a lot of money.”

King holds degrees from Brown University, Cambridge University and a law degree from Yale University. But he does not think magistrates need law degrees to handle increased responsibilities.

“I’m a practicing attorney as well, and I can say some of the best judges in the state I’ve appeared in front of are nonlaw-trained magistrates … and I would hate to limit access to justice in some of our rural counties that don’t have lawyers who live in the county,” King said.

During the hearing, King brought up that Chautauqua County has only one attorney who lives in the county, and he’s retired. King said the legal experience of magistrates, who are elected, should be left up to voters.

“Judges administering justice around the state should be representative of the communities they serve,” King said. “And if members of the community would rather have someone who has many decades of experience in the local community to be on the bench rather than someone who moved in the community fresh out of law school, that’s a choice they should be able to make.”

The committee also heard testimony over a bill designed to strengthen the courts’ abilities to collect debts. But it’s another piece of legislation that King believes offers the courts the biggest opportunity to close its budget shortfall.

On Wednesday the committee will consider a bill to increase docket fees, money charged for filing a case with the court. King said increased docket fees and summary judgment fees would raise $6.2 million for the courts.

“I think on Wednesday it will be very interesting to see how the courts react to getting what it asked for in a form that its own commission recommended,” King said, noting Nuss’s warning that courts could close in July.

For his part, Nuss opposes increased docket fees. In a letter to King last month, the chief justice argued that the state general fund was a more stable source of funding for the courts.

“We also have substantial concerns as to the reliability of the projected revenue these increased fees would generate,” Nuss wrote. He also expressed concerns that this change would make it more expensive for Kansans to file lawsuits, “with no financial benefit to the judicial branch.”

Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, an attorney and a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said increased fees could dissuade some working-class Kansans from seeking justice in court.

King said even with the proposed increases, Kansas still would have the lowest docket fees in the region.

On Monday, Gov. Sam Brownback signed another piece of legislation, the first of 2014, that King said also stemmed from the commission. Newly signed House Bill 2303 will increase registration fees for DUI offenders. The revenue collected will help provide the judicial branch with between $1.5 million and $1.8 million to pay for an “overdue” pay increase for court employees, King said.