The Supreme Court issued a statement strongly rebuking the governor Friday after he signed a judicial budget that ties funding to policy changes.
Early in the session, Chief Justice Lawton Nuss had warned that courts could be forced to close in July if more money was not appropriated for the judicial branch.
HB 2338 offers some new money. It also includes policy changes and shifts some power from the Supreme Court to district courts.
Under the new law, the chief judges of individual district courts will have the authority to decide how to spend their budgets. The chief justice will still decide how much money goes to each district court, but will not have power over how it is spent.
“The Supreme Court of Kansas has strongly opposed this bill since its creation. We are troubled now that it has been signed by the governor,” the court said in a statement issued shortly after the signing was announced by the governor’s office Friday afternoon.
The governor’s office did not comment on the statement.
The bill allocates $2 million more from the state general fund to the judicial branch. Nuss had said that more than $8 million would be needed.
“It weakens the centralized authority of the Kansas unified court system in exchange for money to pay our employees and keep courts open. And the money it provides still may fall short of even doing that,” the court said.
“This is a poor trade. We have very serious concerns about what will happen to the administration of justice in Kansas,” the court stated. “We believe Kansans deserve better.”
The bill also raised docket fees, which Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, said will help increase revenue by $6 million. King said this bill and another signed earlier in the session that increased pay for judicial employees together add a total of $10 million to the judicial branch budget.
“We’ll put it this way. If a $10 million increase in the judicial branch budget is not enough to fund judicial branch operations, that may show why we need to give district courts more control over their local budgets to find efficiencies,” King said in a phone call.
“It’s the same principle we use in every other form of government. The state of Kansas doesn’t tell Shawnee Mission School District how to spend the money it gets,” said King, who was the chief architect of the reforms.
“The local chief judges know their districts better than someone sitting in an office in Topeka and they should have the flexibility to use the money given to them in the way they think best promotes justice in their districts,” he added.
Ryan Wright, executive director of Kansans For Fair Courts, said he did not think the bill would promote justice. In an e-mail, he said the bill represented political retribution against the court by the Legislature.
“We are disheartened that the Governor has allowed political retribution to stand as a substitute for reasoned policymaking and respect for the rule of law,” Wright said.
King dismissed the notion that the newly signed law represented an attack by the Legislature on the courts.
“The Legislature gets absolutely no authority at all through this bill. This is about giving local judges increased authority over their own judges,” King said. “This is a bill about local control for local courts.”
He also said the Supreme Court’s opposition does not necessarily reflect the opinion of all judges.
“I’ll let judges across the state as a whole speak for themselves. I mean, the Supreme Court’s obviously speaking for seven people in an office in Topeka. And we have a history in this state of recognizing that the people on the ground best know how to use the money on the ground,” he said.