A column by analyst Lyle Denniston in the Constitution Daily takes Justice at Stake Interim Executive Director Liz Seaton’s recent piece for Talking Points Memo (see Gavel Grab) as a jumping-off point, and asks, “Do state legislatures have the power to shut down state courts?” Seaton’s piece highlighted recent events in Kansas, where legislation was passed that put the entire judicial system budget at risk. In that piece, Seaton wrote that “an axe is hanging over funding of the entire state court system because elected officials chose to make political pawns of state courts.”
In his analysis, Denniston notes “the actions of a growing number of state legislatures to rein in what some lawmakers apparently believe are courts that exercise too much power and are too resistant to what legislators want from them.” Examining the situation in Kansas, he writes that “when the legislature uses its budget powers in a way that definitely seems to be controlling how judges rule on legal questions, that stirs up the separation-of-powers controversy to a pitched level.”
“The drama in Kansas has now mushroomed into a fundamental test of the nature of state government, at least when two of the branches are so at odds that a constitutional crisis develops, ” Denniston concludes. He adds that it will likely fall to the very Kansas state officials who are enmeshed in the controversy, to untangle the legal mess that has ensued.