The highest-ranking judge in Kansas lashed out at lawmakers Monday for tying critical court funding to an administrative overhaul of the judicial system.
Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton Nuss, in an opinion essay sure to fuel a long-simmering fight with legislators, blasted lawmakers’ insistence on decentralized budgets for the judicial system and a new method for choosing chief district judges.
Those changes, which would effectively strip some authority from the Kansas Supreme Court, are part of legislation that includes funding the courts need to stay open at full strength beyond June.
Nuss contended that the proposal was grudgingly supported by the Kansas District Judges Association only because the package enacted new and higher legal fees.
“If Kansans start down the road where judges feel compelled to help bargain away the Court’s authority, where does that road end?” Nuss asked in his essay.
Nuss declined to comment beyondhis opinion piece
, which The Star published online.
Sen. Jeff King, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the bill aims to empower local judges, who would assume the power to choose chief district judges from the high court. They would also manage their own budgets, also currently commanded by the state supreme court.
King dismissed charges that the bill leverages funding issues to muscle those proposed organizational changes toward passage.
“This bill does not increase legislative power over courts one iota,” said King, an Independence Republican. “It gives local judges the flexibility to use the money allocated to them in the way they know best for their own courts.”
The courts are expected to fall $8.2 million short for fiscal year 2015, which starts July 1, partly because of declining fee revenue and budget cuts.
Nuss’ latest comments reflect a deteriorating relationship between the courts and the Legislature.
“Will otherwise fair and impartial judges be asked to decide court cases the way some legislators want them to be decided — in exchange for money to keep the courts open for the people of Kansas they all are supposed to be serving?” the chief justice wrote.
Relations between lawmakers and the court have been rocky for years. Tensions grew stronger with decisions ordering the Legislature to spend millions more dollars on schools and restricting the state’s use of the death penalty.
Conservative legislators have tried unsuccessfully to turn appointments to the state Supreme Court over to the governor.
Even as Nuss was sending out his letter, a House committee on Monday considered legislation barring the judicial branch from hiring statehouse lobbyists.
Last year Nuss accused King of tying parts of the judiciary’s budget to judges supporting a plan that would let the governor nominate appeals court judges.
King denied those charges, too. Although he is not named in Nuss’ opinion piece, King has presided over the changes being considered by the Legislature.
“It is getting a little tiresome,” King said of Nuss’ criticism of lawmakers.
King said the bill tries to answer Nuss’ concerns about judicial funding.
“There is no evil conspiracy,” King said. “We’re trying to do good budgeting and good budget policy.”