Politics & Government

Colyer says Kobach should personally pay legal fees after trial over Kansas voter law

Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer and Secretary of State Kris Kobach
Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer and Secretary of State Kris Kobach KansasCity

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach should personally pay more than $26,000 in legal fees imposed by a federal judge, Gov. Jeff Colyer said Thursday.

Kobach called Colyer “desperate” and said it his office that is the defendant in a federal lawsuit over a Kansas voter law. The

Secretary of State’s Office has also said that Kobach is shielded from having to personally make payments.

Colyer’s call came the day after U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson ordered Kobach to pay legal fees to the American Civil Liberties Union and a related legal team in the fight over Kansas’ proof-of-citizenship voting law.

Kobach personally led the defense of the law in a federal civil trial earlier this year. The judge found the law unconstitutional and also held Kobach in contempt.

Robinson’s order comes less than a week before Republicans will vote in the state’s primary election for governor. Kobach and Colyer are facing off against each other, along with Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer and former state Sen. Jim Barnett.

“It’s outrageous frankly, especially for a politician who spends so much time talking about cutting government spending, to use taxpayer dollars to pay these fines,” Colyer said in a statement. “The right thing to do for the taxpayers of Kansas is for the Secretary to pay the fine out of his own pocket.”

Kobach told reporters in Topeka on Thursday that the case is being appealed.

“Secondly, the office is the entity that is the defendant,” Kobach said.

During a stop later in the day near Kansas City, Kobach said Colyer was behind in the race and called the governor’s statement desperate.

“Apparently, he’s getting so desperate, he’s willing to lie,” Kobach said.

In the lawsuit that led to the trial, Kobach is named as a defendant “in his official capacity as Secretary of State for the State of Kansas.”

The question of who will end up paying the court costs has been a source of controversy throughout the year. This spring, some lawmakers led an unsuccessful effort to prohibit Kobach from using state money to pay any fines.

At the time, a top lawyer in Kobach’s office argued that preventing him from using state funds to pay fines would be illegal. His office wrote in a letter that Kobach was sued in his official capacity, but not personally.

The office also argued, citing case law, that “by defending the State’s law, he is personally ‘shielded from liability for civil damages.’”

ACLU of Kansas director Micah Kubic said he was gratified by Robinson’s order but that more is at stake.

“We care much more about protecting the right of citizens to participate in elections and about respect for the rule of law,” Kubic said. “Tens of thousands of innocent Kansas voters lost their right to vote because of Sec. Kobach’s policies. The fight to protect civil liberties is far from over.”

The ACLU had originally sought more than $51,000 in legal fees from Kobach’s office.

Kansas’ proof-of-citizenship voting law requires individuals to present a document proving their citizenship. Applicants often provide a birth certificate or passport.

The law, championed by Kobach, went into effect in 2013. He said the requirements are needed to stop non-citizens from registering to vote.

A years-long federal lawsuit against the law came to a head in a federal trial this spring. Robinson found Kobach’s evidence and claims of voter fraud largely unpersuasive. She also found him in contempt of court for not following previous instructions.

Robinson struck down the law in June and ordered continuing legal education for Kobach. She ordered Kobach not to enforce the proof-of-citizenship requirements.

Kobach has said he anticipated that Robinson would rule against him. He has also said he is confident in the case’s chances on appeal.

It’s not clear exactly how many previously invalid voter registrations were validated by Robinson’s order. Bryan Caskey, the Kansas director of elections, said the order had “touched” about 25,000 voter records.

Beyond changing the status of existing voter registration applicants, lifting the proof-of-citizenship requirement also fueled efforts to register new voters.

Kobach said the increase in registrations stemming from the court ruling is probably small.

“I don’t think the federal court ruling affected the registration figures all that much. It certainly would have increased them because what happened is you have people now registering without showing proof of citizenship,” Kobach said.

He said when the proof-of-citizenship requirement was in effect, 95 percent of individuals who started the voter registration process completed the process. Of the remaining 5 percent who did not, many were people who had moved away, he said.

Kobach’s office said Thursday that as of July 17, there were 1.8 million registered voters in Kansas. Among them: 436,034 Democrats, 789,769 Republicans, 558,462 unaffiliated voters, and 16,769 Libertarians.

Contributing: The Star’s Hunter Woodall