Legislative forces formally lined up for an assault on the Kansas courts this week, when a House-Senate conference committee agreed to use the power of the purse to try to force the judiciary into deciding a case in the Legislature’s favor.
The egregious power play works like this: If the courts stay, invalidate or strike down as unconstitutional any part of the 2014 law that curbed the Kansas Supreme Court’s power, the state’s entire judicial budget for the next two years will evaporate. Poof.
A similar provision was included in the 2014 law, which is being challenged in a lawsuit filed in February by Chief Judge Larry T. Solomon of the 30th Judicial District (Kingman, Barber, Harper, Sumner and Pratt counties). The lawsuit, pending in Shawnee County District Court, says that the 2014 law violates the state constitution by taking away the chief justice’s power to appoint the chief judge in each district court.
The latest bill, which contains the courts’ funding through fiscal 2017, still must be considered by both the House and Senate, which will be limited to up-or-down votes. The bill’s message is clear, as Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said in a Wall Street Journal article: “It says, ‘You do what we want you to do or we’re going to shut you down.’”
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At least what had been an under-the-radar element of the budgeting debate has started to draw more deserved attention, in and outside of Kansas. The Journal article suggested the legislation may be the first to make court funding contingent on the outcome of an individual case and is being viewed by public-interest groups “as the most pointed challenge to judicial independence in recent memory.”
The Republican architects of the latest punitive bill characterize it as no big deal, just as they did the 2014 policy reforms that weakened the Supreme Court’s budget authority and otherwise.
Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, said: “Having funding decisions decided at the level of government closest to the people is something I personally believe in.”
But whether King and other lawmakers prefer locally controlled district courts is irrelevant. What counts is what the state constitution says, and since 1972 it has said the Supreme Court has “general administrative authority over all courts in this state.”
The legislative decision to punish the courts in this and other ways is all about politics, and particularly recent Supreme Court decisions about school funding, the death penalty and other matters that have proved unpopular at the Statehouse. Lawmakers no doubt hope the intimidation factor will work to their benefit on other cases, too, including the ongoing school funding fight.
Because judges aren’t free to scream bloody murder about this latest bill, other Kansans must speak up on behalf of adequately funded, independent courts.
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman