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Archive for Tuesday, January 23, 2001

Urgent need

January 23, 2001

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To preserve the separation of powers, the three branches of state government must maintain independence from one another. But the state's judicial branch still is dependent on the governor and the Legislature to provide funds for the courts to do their job effectively.

Many people involved in the state's court system would say that lawmakers are falling short.

Kay McFarland, the chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court, appeared before the Senate Ways and Means Committee last week asking legislators to add $1 million to the current budget for the Kansas court system. The budget proposed by Gov. Bill Graves, she said, is inadequate and will cause the court system to fall even further behind on its personnel needs.

The Supreme Court has ordered district and appellate courts to delay filling any personnel vacancies for 60 days in an effort to save enough money to make it through the year. That is virtually the only way the state judiciary can save money; salaries make up 97 percent of the state's costs for the judicial branch. Most of the non-salary costs are covered by the counties in which the courts operate.

Douglas County knows all about that cost. The creation of a sixth division for Douglas County District Court was a top priority for county commissioners for the current legislative session, but that position was not included in the governor's budget proposal. The five judges who serve in Douglas County District Court have become so overwhelmed by their workload that the county has approved the hiring of a magistrate judge to help out at county expense.

Local legislators believe this situation is so extreme that they plan to introduce a bill that circumvents the traditional avenue for requesting the addition of a judge in the judicial district. Normally, such requests come from the Office of Judicial Administration to the governor. Rep. Ralph Tanner noted during a legislative breakfast on Saturday that he, along with Reps. Barbara Ballard, Troy Findley and Tom Sloan and Sen. Sandy Praeger, would introduce a bill directly to the Legislature seeking a sixth judge for Douglas County's judicial district.

Tanner said that the local delegation was crossing party lines to support this measure partly in hopes that the position would be funded but also to show support for the county's response to the current load being handled by district court judges. It also is a statement, Tanner said, that the judiciary is "woefully underfunded" and in danger of not keeping up with its responsibilities.

The local legislators know that their unusual action may not result in the creation of a new judgeship for Douglas County, but perhaps their action will draw attention to an urgent need. Every year, state legislators gather to pass laws. Perhaps they should consider the futility of that exercise if there aren't sufficient judges and court personnel to enforce the measures they pass.

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