More state court judges are suing the state of Kansas.
The lawsuit by four Kansas district court judges challenges a law passed earlier this year. That law would stop all state funding of the state judiciary system if a court invalidated a change in the way chief district court judges are selected.
The law “significantly interferes” with the authority of the courts to hear and decide cases and violates the Kansas Constitution in several ways, the suit says.
It creates “an undue temptation for a court to reject such a challenge for fear that the entire judiciary will lose its funding,” according to the suit, which was filed last Friday in Shawnee County District Court.
The judges filing suit are Robert Fairchild, chief judge of the 7th judicial circuit; Jeffry Jack, 11th judicial district court judge; Larry Solomon, chief judge of the 30th judicial district; and Meryl Wilson, chief judge of the 21st judicial district.
A fight pitting Gov. Sam Brownback and the Republican-dominated Legislature against the courts began in 2014, when lawmakers approved a measure to transfer the power to appoint chief district court judges from the Kansas Supreme Court to judges in each of the state’s 31 judicial districts.
That was followed last session by the approval of House Bill 2005. It said that if Kansas courts ruled the new selection policy invalid, the judicial branch’s budget through 2017 also would be “null and void.”
The funding trigger was almost pulled last week, although Brownback said in a news conference Friday that the courts were funded and functioning. Two days earlier, Shawnee County District Judge Larry Hendricks struck down the 2014 law on chief judge appointments, saying it violated the state’s separation of powers policy. Solomon had filed that suit.
But Hendricks put his ruling on hold last Thursday, and the funding halt didn’t take effect. Solomon’s case will continue on appeal.
Pedro Irigonegaray, attorney for the judges, said he worked with Attorney General Derek Schmidt to ask for a stay to the order “to avoid the unnecessary crisis that some members of the Legislature and Gov. Brownback had created.”
Irigonegaray called the measure to halt funding “unheard of.”
“What is truly most significant to me about this entire experience is the reckless disregard for our system of government that House Bill 2005 represents,” he said. “It was done with full knowledge and understanding that a constitutional crisis would be created if they did not get what they wanted.”
The change in the selection process for chief judges was meant to create more local control, lawmakers said, but critics called it legislative interference in the Supreme Court’s administrative duties, set out in the state constitution. Brownback has only one appointee on the seven-member Supreme Court.
Brownback last Friday defended both the provision to halt court funding and the change in the selection process for chief judges.
“That’s a legislative matter,” he said.