Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton Nuss said Monday that Kansas voters made their desire for an independent court clear when they chose to retain all five justices on the ballot.
Nuss and the four other justices up for retention survived an ouster campaign in the November election. All six members of the Court of Appeals who stood for retention were also retained.
“I took that vote to retain all 11 of us as a sign that Kansans want to maintain a strong judicial branch, a branch that’s equal to the executive and legislative branches,” Nuss said after he and the other judges took the oath of office at a ceremony on Monday.
“And they don’t want judges who are influenced by special interests or special groups or are intimidated. They want their judges to make decisions fairly and impartially,” he said. “In short, Kansans told us in November that they want to continue to live under the rule of law.”
One source of tension between the court and the other two branches of government has been the ongoing school finance case. The court will rule this year on whether the state is unconstitutionally underfunding schools.
The ruling looms over the Legislature’s 2017 session, which began Monday. The state faces a budget hole of more than $900 million for the next 18 months. Closing that budget gap will become more difficult if the court orders the state to spend more on education.
Nuss would not say when the ruling might happen when he spoke to reporters on Monday.
“We are trying to get that ruling out as soon as we can, and if it happens to coincide with the Legislature’s schedule, great. If it does not coincide, that’s just the way things go,” Nuss said.
Nuss said the judicial branch planned to ask the Legislature for increased funding in its budget request this month, noting that the state’s courts have been unable fill many positions and that judges have not had a salary increase since 2008.
He said if the courts maintained current funding levels, they could avoid furloughs but that cutting the judicial branch by $1 million would force courts to close for about four days.
Nuss said he is hopeful that the three branches of government can have more respectful relationships as the session begins. He will deliver his State of the Judiciary speech in the Kansas House for the first time in four years.
Nuss had delivered the speech at the Kansas Judicial Center in recent years because former House Speaker Ray Merrick had decided against holding the speech in the House. New House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, reached out to Nuss ahead of the session about reviving the tradition of delivering the speech at the Legislature.