Topeka — The Kansas Legislature reconvenes today to work on funding public schools amid a political microburst over communications on school finance between state Supreme Court Justice Lawton Nuss and two powerful senators.
"It's a terrible mistake for a justice to have made," Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said of the incident that was disclosed last week. "I'm frankly shocked and pretty angry about the fact that it happened."
But Sebelius said she hoped the controversy surrounding Nuss wouldn't distract legislators from following the Kansas Supreme Court's orders to increase school funding as the wrap-up session starts.
Some lawmakers have called for public hearings into the lunch meeting involving Nuss, Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, and Sen. Pete Brungardt, R-Salina.
Last week, Nuss announced that he would remove himself from further proceedings in the school finance case after it was disclosed that at a March 1 lunch with Morris and Brungardt, Nuss brought up the pending school funding case.
Nuss denied anything substantial was said but decided to recuse himself from the case to avoid the appearance of impropriety. Generally, judges are forbidden from talking about pending litigation with interested parties in the case outside the courtroom.
Critics of the court Tuesday said Nuss, Morris and Brungardt should testify in public as to what happened.
"The real question is trying to find out what occurred," said Sen. Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler, who convened a meeting of his Senate Elections and Local Government Committee to discuss the Nuss incident.
At the meeting, attended by less than half the committee members, Wichita attorney Richard Peckham said Nuss' decision to have lunch with two legislators and discuss the pending case was symptomatic of deeper problems with the court.
"This is a junior high school-type mistake," said Peckham, who is chairman of an organization critical of the Kansas court system.
"When Nuss sat down in an extrajudicial discussion, what he did was say, 'People of Kansas, your separation of powers is no longer operative here. It doesn't matter, and we will attempt to negotiate a deal,'" he said.
Several committee members speculated that Nuss may have talked with other members of the court about the lunch discussion, which they said would taint the entire school finance case.
Ron Keefover, a spokesman for the court, said that did not happen.
Keefover said Thursday he heard allegations were made that there had been communications between Nuss and two legislators. He told Chief Justice Kay McFarland, who convened the seven justices for a meeting, where Nuss disclosed the lunch meeting.
"Everybody in the room was hearing it for the first time," Keefover said.
Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, a member of the Senate elections committee, said Tuesday's hearing was inappropriate because McFarland already has called for an investigation into the Nuss matter by the Commission on Judicial Qualifications.
"I was invited to not a committee meeting but to a press conference," Francisco said.