Provide needed resources to judicial branch

State lawmakers made court funding contingent on their reforms holding up in court.
State lawmakers made court funding contingent on their reforms holding up in court.

So state lawmakers have nothing but respect for the separation of powers, they now say, and never meant to try to bully the state judiciary into submission by threatening to defund and shutter it.

Such pleas of innocence are hard to believe, because legislators crafted and passed laws in both 2014 and 2015 making court funding statewide contingent on their meddling judicial oversight reforms holding up in court.

Predictably, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled last week that one of those changes was unconstitutional – the one taking the job of selecting chief district judges away from the Supreme Court and turning it over to the local judges themselves. Legislative supporters of that and other reforms argued they were modest moves favoring “local control,” and not in conflict with the Kansas Constitution’s language saying “the Supreme Court shall have general administrative authority over all courts in this state.”

But the high court upheld the lower court win for Kingman-based Chief District Judge Larry Solomon and struck down the law as a violation of the constitution and the separation-of-powers doctrine.

Last week’s decision, which is being watched nationally as a test of judicial independence, would have immediately eliminated all judicial funding statewide if not for a judge’s earlier ruling in a separate case that put the trigger on hold until March.

Taken at their word now, legislators appear ready to address and avert the judicial funding crisis as soon as the 2016 session convenes. Thank goodness for that – though Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, ominously suggested to the Lawrence Journal-World that total court funding may change.

“The provision was put in the bill specifically because there were historic increases in judicial branch funding the last few years.... Having that (local) say was an integral part of the entire budget package, which was passed as a package and so linked as a package,” King said. “Now that some of that has been called into question, we have the opportunity to go back and re-evaluate that funding, but no one wants to abolish it entirely.”

Some conservatives hailed a concurring opinion by Justice Caleb Stegall, Gov. Sam Brownback’s former lawyer and only appointee to the high court, that advocated a stricter “sequestering of the three great governmental powers” – a sentiment observers linked to the Supreme Court’s pending decision on whether the constitution obligates the state to spend more on K-12 schools.

In any case, King and his legislative colleagues should do their duty now to provide the co-equal judicial branch of state government with the resources it needs to serve Kansans and justice.