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Archive for Wednesday, March 16, 2005

With schools, death cases pending, legislators answer courts

March 16, 2005

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— Stung by rulings mandating higher spending on public schools and striking down Kansas' death penalty law, legislators are considering proposals to limit judges' power and make the courts more responsive to voters.

A House committee endorsed a bill Monday to set standards for courts to use in deciding whether education funding meets the requirements of the Kansas Constitution. The measure also would require a three-judge panel -- instead of a single judge -- to review school finance lawsuits in district court.

Another House committee planned a hearing Thursday on a proposal to have voters pick Supreme Court justices in nonpartisan elections. A proposal before the Senate would retain the governor's power to appoint justices but require the Senate to confirm their selection.

Some legislators remain upset over the Supreme Court's decision in January declaring the 1994 capital punishment law unconstitutional. Some lawmakers also are frustrated over a school finance lawsuit that led the Supreme Court to set an April 12 deadline for legislators to improve education funding.

"It's obvious that the real issue that's motivating the Legislature is just politics," said Bill Rich, a law professor at Washburn University of Topeka. "We want an independent judiciary up until at least the time it rules against us, and then we want one we can control."

The bill on school funding lawsuits won Senate approval last month. The House's committee on school finance endorsed the measure on a voice vote Monday, sending it to the chamber for debate.

The House panel added language saying parents, educators or school districts suing the state must prove the state isn't spending enough money to cover the cost of mandated school courses.

Committee Chairwoman Kathe Decker, R-Clay Center, said the proposal would give the courts guidance.

"To me, this is not meddling," she said.

Critics contend the bill is directed at Shawnee County District Judge Terry Bullock, who declared in December 2003 that the state had an "irrational" formula for distributing its $2.7 billion in aid to schools. Bullock's ruling -- and the Supreme Court's decision in January -- came in a lawsuit filed in 1999 by parents and administrators in the Dodge City and Salina districts.

"What they're trying to do by statute is influence how these decisions are made," said Alan Rupe, the lead attorney for the lawsuit's plaintiffs. "They're focusing on decisions they don't like."

Both proposals to change the selection of Supreme Court justices would amend the Kansas Constitution.

Currently, a nine-member commission screens applications for the high court and nominates three finalists, with the governor making the appointment. Justices face a statewide election every six years to determine whether they remain on the bench.

Some legislators believe the court isn't accountable enough to voters and that the governor has too much discretion.

Nonpartisan election of justices will make the court closer to the people, said the proposal's sponsor, Rep. Lynne Oharah, R-Uniontown.

"Who better to decide who interprets the law?" he said.

The proposal for Senate confirmation of justices' appointments is sponsored by 28 of the chamber's 40 members. Supporters say it will check the governor's appointment power.

But Rich said both proposals are bad ideas because they would make justices' selection more political.

In other action, supporters of a bill aimed at ensuring women can breast-feed in public urged the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee to strengthen the House-passed measure.

Also, the Kansas chapter of Americans for Prosperity announced it will wage a campaign to amend the state constitution to limit the annual growth in state spending and require voter approval of general tax increases.

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