The Kansas Supreme Court isn’t about to be pushed around by lawmakers.
And lawmakers aren’t about to be bullied by judges.
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This spring, the advancement of some bills by the Kansas Legislature reopened old arguments over who’s the boss of whom.
“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen it,” said Dennis Depew, Kansas Bar Association president.
Conservative Republicans in the Capitol have long been at odds with the judiciary, primarily over a 2005 Supreme Court order demanding hundreds of millions of dollars more for schools.
Relations between the two branches got testy again this spring when the Supreme Court opposed a bill redirecting administrative power to lower courts, a move that might be unconstitutional.
Chief Justice Lawton Nuss lashed out against the bill in a newspaper opinion piece. The court issued a statement emphasizing its opposition when Republican Gov. Sam Brownback signed it into law.
Nuss also questions the necessity of another bill that critics say is a poke at the court: deadlines for court decisions.
This is the second consecutive year Nuss publicly took aim at the Legislature. Last year, he criticized a key senator in a letter that was leaked to the media.
In an interview with The Star last week, the judge said he didn’t intend to pick fights with lawmakers. He said he is trying to protect the integrity of the courts.
“When I see that authority and the respect for this constitutional institution eroded or being undermined, yes, I speak out,” Nuss said.
To many lawmakers, that attitude suggests someone looking for conflict.
“He is stepping into waters that invite conflict,” said state Sen. Julia Lynn, an Olathe Republican and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “He needs to keep his comments and political actions within the walls of the judiciary.”
Earlier this month, the state’s high court issued a statement saying it was “troubled” by the governor signing a bill giving the court more money but decentralizing operations. It came about a month after the chief justice authored a newspaper opinion piece ripping the bill.
In a move that some see as violating the state constitution, the new law lets local judges pick chief district judges instead of the high court. The law also would allow local judges, not the state Supreme Court, to manage their own budgets.
The court issued a statement saying the bill weakens a unified court system by bundling new policies with appropriations.
“We have very serious concerns about what will happen to the administration of justice in Kansas,” the court said.
When lawmakers return to work Wednesday, they are expected to take up a bill setting deadlines for judges to turn in their rulings. It’s another move that might bump up against the state constitution.
It sets a 180-day deadline for the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals to render decisions. A 120-day deadline is set for district courts.
If the judges don’t meet the deadline, lawyers can ask the judges to issue a ruling. Judges would have 30 days to file an opinion or tell the lawyers when a decision will be handed down.
Judges wouldn’t be punished for missing deadlines. Some states, including California and Arizona, withhold judges’ pay when they move too slowly.
The Kansas bill came in response to a special commission examining improvements to the state judicial system. It concluded that the Supreme Court should examine the timeliness of court decisions.
Of the 135 Supreme Court opinions handed down from Jan. 25, 2013, through Jan. 24 of this year, a legislative analysis found the panel took an average of about nine months to render a decision.
Opinions for civil cases took an average of 403 days — or about 13 months — to arrive. Criminal cases took about seven months.
The bill was sponsored by Sen. Jeff King, an Independence Republican and the judiciary committee chairman. He clashed with Nuss last year and again during this year’s legislative session.
He said there’s nothing sinister related to the bills setting time lines for court decisions and channeling some administrative power to lower courts.
The deadline bill has less to do with the timeliness of rulings, he said, than it does keeping litigants informed.
“Parties have often invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in litigation,” King said. “Having an idea when a ruling will come seems to be the least we can do.”
Some legal experts believe the bill might be in murky legal territory. The Legislature already has authority over the courts, including what types of cases they hear. For example, state laws say school finance cases must be heard by three-judge panels and appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Legal scholars said the bill raises questions about violating a separation of powers between different branches of government. But it’s a fine line, they said.
“This is kind of in the middle between things they can and can’t do,” said Jeffrey Jackson, a constitutional law professor at Washburn University in Topeka.
One section of the state constitution says the Supreme Court shall have “general administrative authority” over all state courts.
Nuss declined to say whether he thought the Legislature setting deadlines for court decisions was unconstitutional.
But the chief justice doesn’t think it’s necessary. The court already spells out time limits in its rules for district court cases. They do not apply to the appellate courts, however.
Others see the deadline bill as another jab at the court. It was criticized this year for the school ruling that told the Legislature to spend more money on schools.
“It’s another way for the Legislature to interfere in the judiciary,” said state Rep. Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat. “We should stay out of their business. The court runs the court, not the Legislature.”
Many conservatives have come to view the court as imperious. They see the court more as a political animal, especially with a chief justice who has a sometimes in-your-face approach. They still harbor resentment over a meeting Nuss had with a former Senate president during the last school finance case.
That meeting sparked charges that the two had made a deal to end the lawsuit. Nuss was later formally admonished, and he recused himself from the case after the lunch made headlines.
“There is a lot of pent-up resentment,” said state Rep. John Rubin, Shawnee Republican.