TOPEKA – What could have been a divisive debate over what it takes to impeach state Supreme Court justices fizzled Monday when senators decided to fight another day.
Senate Bill 440 could have established “attempting to usurp the power” of the Legislature or governor as legal grounds to impeach a justice.
But senators took that out of the bill after Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff King, R-Independence, promised to hold a hearing and have a committee vote on a stand-alone impeachment bill in the next two weeks.
The remainder of SB 440 clarifies the Supreme Court’s authority over administering the state court system. It advanced easily.
The biggest change, according to King, is that the Supreme Court would have authority to set salaries for judges and court employees statewide, except their own.
Now, some of those salaries are set by state law, which King said conflicts with a court ruling in December in a case called Solomon v. Kansas.
That ruling dealt mainly with the Supreme Court’s authority to appoint district court presiding judges.
The Kansas Constitution says justices can be removed from office through impeachment for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Stung by Supreme Court rulings that the state is failing to suitably fund schools, 18 of the 40 senators have co-sponsored legislation to define the meaning of “high crimes and misdemeanors” to include attempting to usurp the powers of other branches of government.
Those lawmakers say that only the Legislature can appropriate money for education and that the court, through its rulings, has tried to take that authority.
The Supreme Court has said it does have jurisdiction to decide whether the Legislature is adequately and equitably funding public schools.
The court ruled two weeks ago that the distribution of state funding among school districts is unconstitutionally inequitable and ordered the Legislature to fix the problem.
The court set a July 1 deadline for closing schools statewide if the Legislature doesn’t act.
The proposal to formalize impeachment standards will be heard and voted on as Senate Bill 439.
Apart from the language about usurping authority, most of the proposed impeachment standards are not controversial.
They deal with issues such as a justice taking bribes, being convicted of a crime or acting discourteously or recklessly when handling cases.