Dave Helling

Should Kansas taxpayers foot the bill for Kris Kobach’s contempt?

It’s time-tested and still useful advice: If you want to get out of a hole, the first step is to stop digging.

Someone should seize Kris Kobach’s shovel.

A federal judge recently found the Kansas secretary of state in contempt of court, citing “clear and convincing evidence” Kobach failed to fully execute a valid order to notify some voters they were properly registered.

The judge, Julie Robinson, ordered Kobach to pay the other side’s legal fees in connection with the contempt case.

The details of the legal bill won’t be known until next week. But it won’t be cheap.

Some lawmakers are upset about that. State Rep. Russ Jennings, a Republican from Lakin, prodded his colleagues into passing a measure that bars taxpayers from paying contempt penalties in cases involving statewide elected officials.

Jennings had Kobach in mind. “You pay your own bills if you get yourself in that kind of trouble,” he said.

Predictably, Kobach howled. His senior counsel sent a letter to lawmakers insisting the Jennings “proviso” was illegal, and that defending it would be “futile.”

I don’t know. Arguing against Kobach in court is rarely futile. It’s almost always successful.

The Jennings proviso didn’t survive the final days of the 2018 session. That shouldn’t be a surprise: Jennings was making a point, not law.

And his point is important. The judge didn’t sanction the state of Kansas for contempt; she sanctioned Kobach. While it’s true that Kansas and Kobach are linked in a legal sense, taxpayers shouldn’t be held responsible for his personal misbehavior.

If a state of Kansas employee gets a speeding ticket while driving a state-owned car on state business, the employee is responsible for the fine, not taxpayers. The policy is clear: Taxpayers aren’t on the hook for state workers’ improper activity.

No one expects the attorney general to personally pay $500 million if he loses the school funding case. If he lies to the court, however, and a contempt sanction follows, it’s plausible he — not the people — should pay the penalty.

Kobach’s office said making such an argument in court would have required “significant resources.” Not really. The state’s lawyers are being paid each day. Adding another lawsuit wouldn’t have cost that much.

And, of course, Kobach would have had to sue Kansas had the Jennings proviso become law. Imagine: a state official, running for governor, suing to force state taxpayers to pay for his own screw-up.

That wouldn’t look good on a postcard.

The irascible secretary of state will continue to blame his problems on everyone but himself: the liberal media, moderates in the Legislature, the federal courts, the immigrant community.

Maybe he’ll blame the phases of the moon, or the deep state, or an international conspiracy.

Kansans know the facts. Kobach faces a contempt citation because he thought he could outsmart a federal judge, and he failed. Now he wants everyone else to pick up the tab.

The argument over the Jennings proposal has served Kansans well. The debate has provided voters with a good understanding of what’s at stake when they choose a secretary of state — or a governor.