Archive for Saturday, April 22, 2006

Judge’s lunch meeting scrutinized

Speaker calls for investigation of school discussion with lawmakers

April 22, 2006

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— A two-pronged inquiry appeared in progress Friday into what was said between Kansas Supreme Court Justice Lawton Nuss and two influential lawmakers about the pending school funding lawsuit.

House Speaker Doug Mays said he would likely convene a special legislative investigation, in which powerful lawmakers and justices could be called to testify under oath.

"Public confidence in the judiciary is at stake," said Mays, R-Topeka.

And several senators confirmed that they have been questioned in the Nuss matter by investigators for Atty. Gen. Phill Kline's office.

On Thursday, Nuss announced he would remove himself from future proceedings in the school finance lawsuit after it was disclosed that he spoke about the pending case while having lunch on March 1 with Senate President Stephen Morris, R-Hugoton, and Sen. Pete Brungardt, R-Salina.

But Mays said the four-paragraph explanation released by the court about the events leading up to Nuss' recusal failed to answer many questions.

Violation?

It is a basic tenet of ethics that judges are not supposed to have communications with interested parties in cases outside the courtroom. Legal scholars and many legislators, both attorneys and non-attorneys, have expressed shock that Nuss would discuss with two legislators the most high-profile case before the court.

The Kansas Supreme Court has declared the school funding system unconstitutional because it shortchanges all students, especially poor ones. After a special session last summer, the Legislature added $290 million to the $3 billion system.

The court has said more funding is needed in line with a cost-study analysis. Lawmakers return Wednesday for a wrap-up session to debate school finance and other issues.

News of the Nuss-Morris-Brungardt lunch added to the suspicions of many lawmakers who have complained about alleged "back-channel" discussion between the court and legislators sympathetic to the lawsuit.

"My concern is that this just represents the tip of the iceberg," said Sen. Jim Barnett, R-Emporia.

"The citizens of Kansas deserve answers, and the truth has to come out if we hope to maintain and restore the public's trust," he said.

Barnett, a GOP candidate for governor, apparently sparked the inquiry into the lunch meeting.

He said he heard of the meeting and asked the attorney general's office what to do.

Investigators have taken statements from at least Barnett, Morris and Sen. Pat Apple, R-Louisburg, who has stated he had a conversation with Morris in which Morris said he had contact with someone on the court.

Kline declined to comment on the matter, and seemed to downplay the role of his office, saying, "Investigation is not a word that would apply."

Morris defends himself

Morris said nothing wrong happened at the lunch and that he would be glad to testify to an investigative committee.

"There's nothing to hide," he said.

Morris said he didn't think much of the conversation with Nuss at the time it happened while the three dined at Carlos O'Kelly's in Topeka.

According to a statement released by the Office of Judicial Administration, during the lunch, Nuss shared with the senators a three-column tabulation showing figures from two school funding cost studies, and a House proposal.

Nuss said he wanted to determine if his figures were accurate, according to the statement.

When inquiries were made Thursday about the lunch, Supreme Court spokesman Ron Keefover notified Chief Justice Kay McFarland. All justices were summoned to a meeting where Nuss disclosed what happened, Keefover said.

Nuss then said he would recuse himself in the school finance case "to avoid any appearance of impropriety," a statement from Keefover said.

The statement further said that there had been no discussion between Nuss and the senators "of what amount of funding might eventually be acceptable to him or to the court as a whole."

More openness

Some senators called for an ethics refresher.

"This should be a wake-up call for the Senate leadership to conduct themselves appropriately," said Sen. Karin Brownlee, R-Olathe.

Earlier in the session, Brownlee said that crafters of proposed gambling may have violated the Kansas Open Meetings law when secretly negotiating the legislation.

"It seems we're in unchartered waters at this point," she said.

Sen. Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler, said an investigation is needed to sort out what happened and address other allegations that have circled around the Capitol.

"What are the facts? We need a full and open hearing," he said.

Frequent meals

The incident has thrown light upon the fact that it is not uncommon for key lawmakers to meet with justices, but it is usually over budgetary issues, officials said.

Mays said he has had lunch at least twice with Chief Justice McFarland, whom he said tells funny stories and then lobbies for funding for the court system.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think a justice and legislator would meet and talk about a pending case," he said.

Comments

Jamesaust 9 years ago

Of course, AG Phill Kline would never meet privately with a select group of the Board of Education in order to advise them on means by which they might defy the Kansas Supreme Court or put warning stickers on all biology textbooks (Warning: theory only).

Or meet in closed sessions with a few legislators to advise them how to defy the Kansas Supreme Court and continue avoiding their constitutional duties.

Or would he?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 9 years ago

Sounds like the conversation was inappropriate and ill-advised, but largely harmless. His recusing himself from the case should be all that is required, but the anti-tax, anti-government drama queens won't be satisfied with that.

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