Government & Politics

Kansas Senate — plenty of lawmakers, but no lawyers

The Kansas Senate, as currently constituted, contains no practicing attorney.
The Kansas Senate, as currently constituted, contains no practicing attorney.

For the first time since Kansas joined the union in 1861, not a single state senator is an attorney.

All of which could make things difficult for a joint House and Senate committee that’s required by law to have a licensed Kansas attorney from each chamber.

The problem is one that leading Republican lawmakers see more as a wrinkle rather than a major worry as the state faces budget shortfalls and possible tax increases.

Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, said he didn’t see the lack of lawyers as “a big shortfall.”

“We have a stable full of lawyers, the revisors,” Denning said of the state’s team for legal questions and bill drafting. “I don’t see it as a big issue.”

The Senate has one member with a law degree — Democrat David Haley of Kansas City, Kan. — but he isn’t licensed to be an attorney in Kansas.

Haley, who has served in the Senate since 2001, said low pay for lawmakers may be discouraging attorneys, and other professionals, from running for a spot in the Legislature.

Most lawmakers are expected to make around $28,000 this year, according to the state.

“We in Kansas are woefully, inadequately compensated,” Haley said.

The Senate had two lawyers last year, but neither returned to the Legislature this month. Former Senate Vice President Jeff King didn’t run for re-election, and former Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce lost in the Republican primary.

King said he spent his final days in office trying to figure out how the lack of a lawyer would affect the state.

“The last thing that I did before leaving office was to work with the revisors to identify laws that we would need to change because there wouldn’t be an attorney,” King said. “I felt since my departure was the cause of that, I should at least be part of the statutory solution.”

He said lawmakers would have to change the statute requiring that a licensed attorney from the Senate serve on the Joint Committee on Special Claims Against the State. It’s an interim committee that meets between legislative sessions, meaning it doesn’t meet until later this year.

The state also will have to change a statute that deals with the Uniform Law Commission, a national group that proposes consistent laws for states. King said an attorney could be appointed to be one of the state’s representatives for the national group.

Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton Nuss said he’d prefer having “practicing lawyers or retired lawyers or retired judges” serving on the judiciary committee.

“But we are playing the cards that we have been dealt,” he said, “and we are willing to do whatever we can to help the people on those committees learn about the judicial branch of government.”

King said the Legislature could lose perspective if it didn’t have teachers, farmers and bankers. But lawyers hold special importance, he said.

“Because, obviously, legislatures write laws.”

Hunter Woodall: 785-354-1388, @HunterMw