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The facts, faces and hum of local politics with Steve Kraske and Dave Helling

Kansas Supreme Court justices are bracing for the backlash

01/17/2014 10:05 PM

01/17/2014 10:05 PM

We may never know exactly what went through the minds of the Kansas Supreme Court justices Wednesday night during the civics lesson that Gov. Sam Brownback bestowed on them during his State of the State address.

There they sat in the House chamber, silent and unmoving and just feet from the governor, who forcefully contended that they had no business ordering more money for public schools.

“On the No. 1 item in the state budget — education — the constitution empowers the Legislature — the people’s representatives — to fund our schools,” Brownback said. “This is the people’s business, done by the people’s house.”

Republican lawmakers roared their approval. The five of the seven justices who attended had no choice but to look at their shoes.

Truth is, the justices are in a box and they know it. No matter what they decide in what is destined to be a historic ruling on school finance — due any day now — they will be criticized as activist, out of line and brazenly political.

If they opt not to order more money or send the issue back to the Legislature for further study — in other words, if they do what Brownback wants them to — they will be castigated for copping out. They’ll be accused of being cowed by Brownback.

Several members of the court were involved in the last major school funding case in 2005, when the court ordered that base funding per student jump from $3,900 to $4,492. The hundreds of millions more that lawmakers were forced to approve nearly sparked a constitutional crisis.

Last year, a lower court reviewed the same case and ordered an increase in spending of more than $440 million.

And if the courts order more money be spent? Lawmakers will scream judicial activism. They may well balk at the order, triggering a constitutional crisis.

They may well revolt and retaliate by seeking to change the way Supreme Court justices are picked.

They also could seek a constitutional amendment to bar judges from ordering more spending on schools — a move that would severely undermine the courts’ authority.

And lawmakers might continue to balk at Chief Justice Lawton Nuss’ call that they appropriate millions more on the courts — or face the prospect that the courts will be shut down for weeks at a time across the state.

That, Nuss wrote in September, “is a terrible prospect to consider.”

A tough call, to be sure. But that’s why they wear the robes.

To reach Steve Kraske, call 816-234-4312 or send email to skraske@kcstar.com.

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