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Archive for Monday, May 17, 1999

PANEL CALLS FOR SWEEPING KANSAS JUDICIARY CHANGES

May 17, 1999

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— One recommendation of the Kansas Justice Commission calls for statewide merit selection of district judges. Currently, some are elected.

A 46-member commission that has spent the past two years studying the Kansas courts has released a draft report chock-full of calls for changes, many of them sweeping, in the state's legal system.

But a spokesman for Gov. Bill Graves said the executive branch is taking a wait-and-see approach and is unlikely to get behind proposals that have price tags attached.

"When they issue their (final) report the governor will be happy to consider it very carefully," said spokesman Mike Matson. "But I will say this: The governor has been very frank and up-front about the likely budget scenario we will be facing next year as a result of all that was accomplished this year, and it is very likely to be a tight budget."

Lawmakers and the administration this year dedicated big dollars to highways and schools and also increased spending for various social service programs.

Many of the changes recommended by the Kansas Justice Commission are expected to cost little or nothing but still could face high hurdles in the Legislature.

Among them: About half the 39 judicial districts in the state have elected judges. In the other half, judges are selected on merit by peers and then appointed by the governor. The commission recommends merit selection statewide.

"There was a very strong feeling among commissioners that having judges out soliciting campaign contributions and going out trying to drum up votes is somewhat inconsistent with the requirement that judges be impartial," said Lawrence attorney John Solbach, a commissioner and former chair of the House Judiciary Committee.

Douglas County is among the districts that already have appointed judges.

Other likely hot buttons are the commission's call for more funding, ranging from hefty increases in judges' salaries to more money to pay court support staff.

Also, state law requires there be a district judge resident in each county, regardless how small the county and its caseload might be. The commission pointed out the costliness and inefficiency of this requirement, saying that if legislators want to maintain the current system they should put more money into it.

A judge in every county means, "you also have to have nonjudicial personnel," Solbach said. The judicial branch, which must look to the other two branches for funding, "is often frustrated with this (judge-per-county rule) because when they have cuts in the budget they can't shift the personnel around based on the caseload, ... you're putting an extra financial burden on the judiciary that doesn't need to be there."

Solbach said he considers additional money for the courts, regardless of how they might be restructured, as essential. Solbach said 97 percent of judicial costs are for salaries. When budget cuts are necessary, the courts can respond only by leaving jobs unfilled and keeping a lid on pay.

"A particular problem is compensation for nonjudicial personnel" such as secretaries and clerks, he said. "We feel that acutely in Douglas County. People who have the same job classification in the courts are paid less than those who work for the city. ... It's prestigious to work for the court system. But prestige won't pay the bills."

Better-paid staff would mean a more smoothly flowing system, he said.

Among the other recommendations:

  • Increase the Kansas Court of Appeals from 10 to 14 judges.
  • Add more research attorneys for the state Supreme Court.
  • Create family courts statewide similar to that created in Douglas County by Judge Jean Shepherd.
  • Create a separate Child Protection Authority, similar to the Juvenile Justice Authority, which would take responsibility for abused and neglected children that now rests with Social and Rehabilitation Services.
  • Require lawyers to provide confidential annual reports to the Supreme Court detailing the hours of free legal services they provide.

The commission is soliciting public comments on its proposals and will next meet June 11 to complete its final report. The draft report can be viewed on the Internet at www.kscourts.org/kcji/draft/, or a copy may be obtained by calling (785) 628-5949.

-- Mike Shields' phone message number is 832-7144. His e-mail address is mshields@ljworld.com.

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