Midwest Democracy | Kline wants two justices to remove themselves from ethics case

Former Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline’s appeal of ethics violations is winding its way to the Kansas Supreme Court, where is he trying to get two justices to remove themselves from hearing the case.

Kline filed a motion Tuesday seeking to have Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton Nuss recuse himself, as well as Justice Carol Beier. Kline contends that both justices have a bias against him: Nuss for being the subject of an ethics complaint brought by Kline, and Beier for her “deep-seated antagonism” against Kline.

The motion is the just the latest salvo in legal battles that have been fought for years in Kansas with Kline as the central character in cases involving abortion, reproductive rights, and a sex discrimination lawsuit when he was Johnson County’s district attorney.

So far, the legal bills for taxpayers total roughly $1.9 million — although state officials recently took steps to cap them.

Kline, a Republican, referred questions to Tom Condit, a Cincinnati lawyer who is now representing him in the ethics case.

“Phill has the statutory right of defense just like everyone else,” Condit said in response to questions about the mounting legal costs.

A lot of the legal expenses stem from the ethics charges brought in 2010 against Kline for his tactics in the investigations of Planned Parenthood in Johnson County and the late Wichita abortion provider George Tiller. The case against Planned Parenthood is still pending, with its lawyers seeking to have what’s left of a 107-count indictment dismissed.

Elected attorney general in 2002, Kline spent some of his four-year term investigating Planned Parenthood and Tiller. He lost a re-election bid for attorney general and was appointed Johnson County district attorney.

The state, however, is trying to keep legal costs in the ethics case under control. Earlier this year, the current Kansas attorney general capped Kline’s legal fees at $25,000 for his current lawyer so there would be “budget certainty” as the case neared an end, a spokesman said.

Under state law, legal fees for Kline — as with any current and former state government employee — are covered by taxpayers since they are entitled to a defense for any civil actions brought against them for performing their official duties.

In this case, the attorney general has capped the fees of Condit, who has now entered the case as Kline’s attorney.

“As the case is in its final stages, we were able to work out an agreement with counsel regarding a fixed amount to litigate this matter to its conclusion. This allowed our office to proceed with budgetary certainty,” said Jeff Wagaman, spokesman for Attorney General Derek Schmidt.

The amount of money that the Legislature appropriates for that kind of defense work varies from year to year depending on the case load the attorney general expects.

The attorney general budgeted a total of $5.4 million for what is called “tort claims” defense work from fiscal 2009 to fiscal 2011. The money for the Kline defense work was paid out over time, not in any single lump sum.

Generally, it is not unusual for big cases involving public officials to become pricey. The state, for instance, spent about $100,000 defending a federal lawsuit brought in 2010 by a group of Shawnee Mission School District parents seeking to throw out a cap on school spending.

The state also has spent more than a half million dollars defending lawsuits over new abortion restrictions that were passed by the Legislature last year.

In all of those lawsuits, the governor or other state officials were named as defendants, leading the state to hire outside legal counsel to mount a defense.

Condit, however, said it’s unfair to look at all the legal fees for Kline in their totality since each case is different.

In the ethics case, Condit said Kline is responding to a fight started by the state disciplinary board for attorneys. Kline supporters have accused the board of having a bias against him.

“It’s a nuclear war against him, his law license and his livelihood,” Condit said. “People expect (Kline) to defend himself against nuclear warheads with what? A dull butter knife? What do they expect him to do?”

The state disciplinary board for attorneys last year recommended that Kline be indefinitely suspended from practicing law in Kansas because of ethics violations. Kline, who now lives in Virginia, is appealing the decision. Both sides are now filing briefs with the state Supreme Court.

The disciplinary board found that Kline provided false or deceptive information to the courts in his pursuit of abortion providers and ignored a court warning not to talk about his investigation of Tiller on national television.

But there have been other legal costs as well.

In 2008, the state had to pay $475,000 to settle a lawsuit over a legal opinion that Kline wrote early in his term as Kansas attorney general. The 2003 opinion said doctors, school administrators and therapists, among others, were required to tell authorities if they suspected a teen younger than 16 was sexually active.

The Center for Reproductive Rights brought a lawsuit to stop the state from enforcing the opinion. Although the case was filed against the Sedgwick County district attorney as a representative of Kansas district attorneys, the case centered on Kline’s opinion.

Ultimately, a federal judge agreed that Kline’s opinion went beyond what state legislators intended when they passed a child abuse reporting law in 1982.

Condit blamed a lot of the legal bickering on political rival and former Kansas Attorney General Paul Morrison, a Democrat. Condit said Morrison should have appealed the judge’s ruling.

“We’ll lay that half million dollars at the foot of Paul Morrison,” Condit said.