Conflicts between the branches of government are not something peculiar to Kansas. Educational funding lawsuits ferment conflict, as witnessed by the litigation in the State of Washington. But, what is happening in Kansas is frankly regrettable.
Recently, the legislature passed – and the governor signed – a law that 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. In response, several judges have filed a lawsuit alleging that the law “significantly interferes” with the authority of the courts to hear and decide cases, and violates the Kansas Constitution in several ways. The judges argue that the law creates “an undue temptation for a court to reject such a challenge for fear that the entire judiciary will lose its funding.” 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.
In 2014, 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. Reasonable minds can differ about the wisdom of the legislation. Many states have this model, but many states have the model Kansas has historically used to appoint chief judges of the trial court. But what followed was the approval of House Bill 2005. That law said that if Kansas courts ruled the new selection policy invalid, the judicial branch’s budget through 2017 also would be “null and void.”
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The president of the Kansas Bar Association calls 2016 a “defining moment.” Natalie Haag, of Topeka, serving in the top office since June, is part of a crusade to fight for the independence of the Kansas Supreme Court, which she believes will be threatened at election time. There is little doubt that the litigation about court leadership, coupled with cutting off all funding to the courts, presents a rather unprecedented threat to judicial independence, but why 2016…surely the litigation over funding and appointment authority will be resolved by then?
In November 2016, several Supreme Court Justices will be up for retention. Kansas has no recent history of highly charged retention elections. The fear is that current Supreme Court Justices could be swept from the bench by a highly politicized retention campaign
Two of the seven justices were appointed by former Republican Governor Bill Graves, and four were appointed by former Governor Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat. Current Republican Governor Sam Brownback has named one, Caleb Stegall.
Haag anticipates an ideological movement to oust the three justices up for retention not appointed by Brownback. That would give Brownback the chance to appoint justices more aligned with his agenda.
Read more here.