TOPEKA – A Kansas judge Wednesday struck down an administrative change legislators imposed on the state’s courts, a ruling the attorney general said could jeopardize the judicial branch’s entire budget.
Shawnee County District Judge Larry Hendricks declared unconstitutional a 2014 law changing how chief judges in the state’s 31 judicial districts are selected. Hendricks said the law interfered with the power granted by the state constitution to the Kansas Supreme Court to administer the courts.
But Hendricks didn’t address another law enacted earlier this year by the Republican-dominated Legislature.
The law said that if the administrative policy were invalidated, the court system’s funding through June 2017 was “null and void.”
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The law has the judges in each judicial district pick their chief judges, taking the power to select them away from the Supreme Court. District Judge Larry Solomon of Kingman County, chief judge in the 30th District of south-central Kansas since 1991, filed a lawsuit against the change.
Critics considered the change an attack on the courts’ independence by Republican legislators and GOP Gov. Sam Brownback, particularly when they tied preserving the policy to the budget. Pedro Irigonegaray, a Topeka attorney representing Solomon, said another lawsuit will be filed soon against this year’s law, to preserve the judiciary’s funding.
“How dare these people so recklessly govern Kansas?” Irigonegaray said, adding that supporters of the administrative policy created “an unnecessary constitutional crisis.”
Attorney General Derek Schmidt said he would ask Hendricks on Thursday to put his decision on hold to avoid jeopardizing the court system’s funding. Schmidt said in a statement that the decision “could effectively and immediately shut off all funding for the judicial branch.”
But state Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff King, an Independence Republican and an architect of the policy change, said he doubts the courts’ funding truly is in jeopardy because there are “numerous opportunities” for appealing Hendricks’ ruling.
The legal dispute has been charged because conservative Republicans have long criticized the Supreme Court over rulings on abortion, capital punishment and education funding.
Four of the seven justices were appointed by former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.
Brownback has proposed giving governors and lawmakers more control over how justices are selected.
Legislators who supported the administrative policy change said some district court judges wanted a say in decisions about who leads them.
King also has said many lawmakers wouldn’t have supported increased spending on the courts without changes aimed at providing more local control. The court system’s total budget is set to increase by a total of 7.5 percent over the next two years, or by nearly $10 million, to more than $138 million.
“Kansas has a rich, deep history of promoting local control,” King said. “This opinion (from Hendricks) strikes at the heart of allowing the officials closest to the people to make the decisions.”
Hendricks said for the Supreme Court, the chief district court judges represent “one of the principal instruments” for exercising authority and stripping the high court of the power to select them “hamstrings” it.
“The Legislature has taken that power away from the Kansas Supreme Court and, thus, exerted itself over a fundamental component of the Judiciary,” Hendricks wrote.