A day after the chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court warned that state courts need more funding and could close in July, a legislative leader urged the justice to adopt reforms that include increased fees.
A blue-ribbon commission recommended in 2011 that Kansas courts could improve efficiency by increasing use of technology and by redefining the duties of certain types of judges and other personnel. It also suggested that court fees could be used to increase revenue for the judicial branch.
The court has implemented some of the changes, but “unfortunately, many BRC recommendations remain unaddressed almost three years after their submission to the court,” Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, wrote to Chief Justice Lawton Nuss.
To make up for the court’s “inaction,” King said, legislators have introduced bills to put the commission’s proposals into law. King, a practicing attorney who served as member on the commission, said he provided advance copies of the legislation to the Supreme Court and is hoping to receive its support.
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A docket fee bill would help raised revenue and address Nuss’s complaint that the court is underfunded, King said. The bill would impose an additional $12 docket fee on traffic cases and raise summary judgment fee to $195.
King noted that Kansas has the lowest docket fees in the region.
Nuss could not be reached for comment Thursday. In his address Wednesday, he voiced skepticism about legislation to increase fees. “Unfortunately, this is an uncertain source of revenue,” he said.
“Don’t get me wrong. We gladly accept additional funding,” Nuss said. “But some argue that the last few years’ reductions in court case filings – that in turn generate the revenue through their filing fees – is because of already high filing fees.”
Nuss highlighted the court’s progress on implementing some of the commission’s reforms as part of his address Wednesday. He pointed to the expansion of electronic filing for court documents, now in place in appellate courts in Topeka and in district courts in Sedgwick and four other counties.
Nuss noted that the money used to implement this system has thus far come mainly from federal rather than state sources. “But continuing to receive federal grants is unlikely – so we will still need state funding to reach our goal,” he said in his address.
One proposal King wants to see implemented would aim to reduce waste by redefining the role of magistrate judges. If parties to a case dislike a decision by a magistrate judge now, they can demand a new magistrate judge. “It costs a lot of money to try a case twice. That’s just sheer inefficiency,” he said.
King wants to avoid this duplication and send these cases directly to the Court of Appeals.
His proposal also would expand magistrate judges’ duties by allowing them to hear cases that now require district judges if parties consent. He pointed to uncontested divorce cases as an example.
“Right now in certain rural Kansas districts, a district judge may drive 100 miles each way to do a 10-minute hearing,” King said. “Parties can consent and let the district magistrate try it. Saves the district judge time. Saves us money on mileage. And the parties get it done quicker.”