Bob Sigman — Attack on Kansas judiciary could yield statewide chaos

01/14/2014 5:21 PM

01/14/2014 5:21 PM

The Kansas Legislature’s antipathy toward the Kansas Supreme Court has prompted the court to launch a new online communications strategy.

Last year, legislative leaders barred Chief Justice Lawton R. Nuss from delivering his State of the Kansas Judiciary speech to a joint session of the Legislature.

The chief justice won’t need an invitation from the Legislature for the customary appearance this year. He decided to make his report directly to the public through the Internet.

Nuss will speak at 12:30 p.m. next Wednesday in the courtroom of the Supreme Court at the Judicial Center in Topeka. Attending, a new release stated, will be “an invited audience that will include legislators, Judicial Branch employees and key constituent groups.’’ The talk will be webcast live at kscourts.org.

The contemptuous attitude of many legislators toward the court goes far beyond snubbing the chief justice; it spills over into the appropriations the Legislature allocates for the state’s judicial system.

In fact, the news release touched on the funding issue. The judicial branch faces an $8.25 million shortfall in the fiscal year that begins July 1, the court warned.

“Ninety-six percent of the Judicial Branch’s budget is for salaries and wages,’’ the court said. “If the shortfall isn’t solved, court employees will be sent home without pay — closing courts and impacting Kansans statewide.’’

In recent months Nuss has spoken out about a chronic lack of funding by the Legislature.

“Budget shortfalls in 2010 and 2012 resulted in the Supreme Court closing courts statewide and sending our 1,500 employees home without pay,’’ Nuss pointed out.

The employees were furloughed four days in 2010 and one day in 2012.

“Given this experience,’’ the chief justice continued, “we know that the simple solution to the $8.25 million reduction would be to close all state courts for about seven weeks. This is a terrible prospect to consider.’’

The court is considering recommendations made by the 10-member Court Budget Advisory Council, a group created by the chief justice and chaired by Kansas Appeals Court Judge Karen Arnold-Burger, former presiding judge of the Overland Park Municipal Court.

Those recommendations include: Continuing or increasing job vacancies, which the council said would strain courts that are already understaffed. Eliminating nearly 20 court service officers who perform duties not required by law. Furloughing nonjudicial employees.

Their six-week study of the court system left the council members discouraged about its future.

“People will not realize the severity of the damage to the Judicial Branch,” a summation said, “until families have to wait more than a year for a divorce or a support order or (are) not able to get a timely protection from abuse order … until residents are the victims of crimes committed by those on probation because court service officers did not have the staff to properly monitor probationers … until heirs have to wait years for an estate to close …”

This intolerable magnitude of delay, if it occurs, would disrupt the lives of thousands of Kansans. It is difficult to believe the Legislature would impose such havoc on the state.

Much of the legislative resentment can be traced to the middle of the last decade when the court ordered the state to increase funding for public schools. It has intensified under ultraconservative Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and his allies in the Legislature.

Their attack on the judiciary needs to stop.

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