Kansas legislators continue to attract criticism from state reporters, evidenced by a recent Kansas City Star editorial.
The legislative session has been extended, at the cost of $43,00 a day, to try and cover a historic budget shortfall. One “particularly malicious measure” ties funding for the entire state judiciary to the Kansas Supreme Court’s ruling on a controversial bill that changed how chief judges are selected.
“One can quibble with the method of selecting chief justices. But threatening to defund the state’s court system is a vengeful and dangerous tactic. Basically, lawmakers are attempting to extort Supreme Court justices to rule in the Legislature’s favor or be shut down.
Conservative Kansas lawmakers have been disrespectful of the state’s courts and judges since rulings on school funding and other matters didn’t go their way. But their willingness to deprive Kansas citizens of a working court process is shocking.”
Other suggested changes eliminating the Kansas Bioscience Authority, and scraping “a sales tax exemption that helps school, local governments and nonprofit hospitals manage construction costs.”
Controversy over strings attached to the Kansas judicial budget is attracting coverage across the state and nation. Under new legislation, the entire state court operating budget for 2016 and 2017 would be cut if the state Supreme Court rules recent administrative changes unconstitutional.
The Wall Street Journal says that legal experts believe “the legislation may be the first to peg the Third Branch’s budget to the outcome of an individual case, and public-interest groups described it as the most pointed challenge to judicial independence in recent memory.” An editorial in the Lawrence Journal-World describes the legislation as “blackmail” and a “power grab,” whereby “lawmakers are trying to alter the roles, responsibilities and fundamental balance of power among the state’s three branches of government.”
“If legislators and the governor think the Kansas Constitution is wrong,” the editorial reads, “they should tackle that issue head-on and seek to change it — not use budget blackmail to try to force the state’s independent judiciary to change its mind.” An op-ed in the Kansas City Star agrees, arguing that the bill is about control, not about decentralizing power as proponents assert.
Watch Gavel Grab as this story develops.
Tension is escalating between legislators and the judiciary in Kansas, where the legislature is prepared to tie funding of the state judiciary to a controversial measure that changed the way the state court system is administrated. Last year, the state Supreme Court was stripped of a number of management and budgetary authorities over lower state courts, under legislation that was widely seen as part of an ongoing series of hostile actions toward the state court system. The constitutionality of the legislation is currently being challenged in a lawsuit.
Now, the Lawrence Journal World reports that the legislature has approved a budget for the judicial system, with a condition: it would cut off all court funding if the Supreme Court rules that the reallocation of authority within the court system is indeed unconstitutional. Opponents say the tactic is an overt power grab, with legislators striving to influence the Supreme Court, and question the constitutionality of one branch of government effectively shutting down another branch by de-funding it. Supporters say it is appropriate for the courts’ budget to be linked to its policies.
The bill is now before both chambers, and will go to a simple vote with no opportunity for amendments.
Are the Kansas legislature and state courts headed toward a constitutional showdown over public education funding? A Topeka Capital Journal article suggests that could be the case.
The article points out that a three-judge district court panel is expected to rule in upcoming weeks on a lawsuit seeking to put barriers in the way of a new block-grant plan for funding public education. At the same time, some legislators in the Republican-controlled Capitol have signaled they were girding for a battle with the courts over school funding, including the House passing last week “a bill that tied funding of the judicial branch to enactment of several judicial policy measures,” the newspaper said.
“We could see not only schoolhouse doors closed because the court enjoins the expenditure of funds under the block grant proposal, but we could also see the courthouse door padlocked,” said Rep. John Carmichael, a Democrat who belongs to the House Judiciary Committee. However, “I think cooler heads will eventually prevail,” he said.
The Kansas Supreme Court told a lower court that it must complete a school funding lawsuit case before it can be heard by the high court.
KSN.com reports that an order issued Thursday means a three-judge panel in Shawnee County District Court must finish hearing the lawsuit first. The lower court has a May 7 hearing scheduled.
Four school districts are suing the state after lawmakers enacted a new school funding law promising additional aid that did not meet the $548 million the lower court earlier ordered.
The Wichita Eagle posted an editorial criticizing the Kansas legislature for punitively stripping the Supreme Court of budgetary powers.
The state’s high court has the constitutional power over “general administrative authority over all courts in this state,” but the 2014 judicial budget countered this provision. Moreover, the law included “a non-severability clause [which] guaranteed that if a court struck down the policy changes as unconstitutional, the judicial funding would fall, too.” Partnered with the court’s recent blocking of some major legislation, the editorial contends that the move sent a “clear message”
The 2015 judicial budget, which was recently approved by the Senate Ways and Means Committee, contains a similar clause, but specifies the funding will be revoked for two fiscal years if the measure is ruled unconstitutional.
A three-judge panel continues to closely monitor education funding in the Kansas state budget.
According to kcur.org, the Shawnee County judges have made it clear that they plan to have a say in what happens with school financing.
All outstanding K-through-12 finance issues will be heard by the panel at a May 7 hearing. The panel sent an email to lawyers involved in the case that said, “That includes block grant legislation passed this session and how much the Legislature will spend on public schools.”
In an ongoing battle (see Gavel Grab), the panel has said that it may take action if it feels the Legislature is not properly funding education.
Four districts are suing the state, and have asked the judges to issue a temporary restraining order against the block grants. Any decision is expected to be appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court.
A bill advancing in the Kansas legislature provides more funding for the state courts, on the condition that the courts do not rule favorably for the plaintiff in a recent lawsuit and find a law adopted last year unconstitutional.
That’s according to Gavel to Gavel, a publication of the National Center for State Courts, which noted, “For the second year in a row Kansas legislators appear poised to give the courts more money on the condition they do not strike down certain laws as unconstitutional.”
A year ago, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback signed legislation (see Gavel Grab) opposed by members of the state Supreme Court that provided increased court funding while making those funds contingent upon overhauling administration of the judicial system. The measure allowed local courts to opt out of state Supreme Court control over budget preparation and submission and took away the Supreme Court’s authority to pick chief district court judges. Read more
Another Kansas editorial is sharply critical of legislation that would expand the ways a state Supreme Court justice can be impeached (see Gavel Grab). The Hays Daily News editorial says the legislation tramples on the checks and balances of the three branches of government.
Among other things, the legislation would add as a grounds for impeachment any attempt to usurp the authority of the legislature. The editorial says the legislation has an agenda, and it involves elected politicians who are allied with Republican Gov. Sam Brownback retaliating against the court:
“In other words, justices who negatively evaluate the laws passed in Kansas by the Brownback bunch could be removed from office. That is not the way the system is supposed to work. Even children are being taught that in Kansas schools — at least for now.
“Brownback’s power grab has to be stopped. Laws need to be reviewed for their constitutionality, not their moral or political bent. If the executive and legislative branches are checked when they attempt to starve the education system or discriminate in the name of religion, the answer is not to replace the justices. Attempting to do so is an affront to democracy, the state, and this great nation.”
Disagreement with a judge “can’t be a reason to impeach anyone,” a Hutchinson (Kansas) News editorial says in taking issue with a Republican lawmaker’s legislation (see Gavel Grab) to expand the grounds for impeaching state Supreme Court justices.
The editorial not only takes issue with the legislation pushed by state Sen. Mitch Holmes, it denounces “brazen hypocrisy” by some lawmakers who would expand the reasons for impeaching judges while maintaining silence about impeaching elected officials.
Holmes “thinks it is just the judicial branch that should be subject to more liberal impeachment rules,” the editorial says. “His bill makes no mention of what happens when the legislative or executive branch tries ‘to usurp the power’ of the judicial branch. We do, after all, have in this country a three-branch system designed of each to have a check and balance on the others.” Read more