Topeka The Senate's top Democrat acknowledged Saturday that he knew several weeks before other legislators that Senate President Steve Morris had contact with a Supreme Court justice on school finance issues.
The disclosure from Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, came as more details emerged about the events prompting Justice Lawton Nuss to remove himself from a school finance lawsuit still before the court.
Nuss had a conversation during a March 1 lunch with Morris, R-Hugoton, and Sen. Pete Brungardt, R-Salina, a longtime friend. On March 31, Morris told others about it, including Sen. Jim Barnett, R-Emporia, and Barnett later notified the offices of the U.S. attorney and the Kansas attorney general. Nuss stepped aside April 20, after a reporter asked the court's spokesman whether there had been any contact between the court and legislators.
Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and many legislators were upset by the conversation, viewing it as an ethical lapse. Nuss faces an investigation by the state Commission on Judicial Qualifications, and House Speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka, plans to appoint a special committee to review the incident.
The controversy - which Hensley called "the Nuss Fuss" - has complicated the debate over school finance, as legislative leaders seek passage of a plan phasing in an increase of between $400 million and $500 million in aid to public schools over three years.
Justice Lawton Nuss
More about Justice Lawton Nuss
- Nuss gets off with warning over school finance talk
- Nuss talks turn political
- Communication between governor's office and Kansas judicial branch (.pdf)
- Code of judicial conduct (.pdf)
- Rules relating to judicial conduct(.pdf)
- Justice Nuss' response to the allegations (.pdf)
- KSGovernor.org: Sebelius responds to wide-ranging open records requests
- Justice Lawton Nuss biography, from Kansas Supreme Court web site
- KSCourts.org: Recusal Statement
- School Finance Proposed Expenditures Comparison (.pdf)
- 6News video: Nuss controversy ends with questionable punishment
- 6News video: Nuss meeting descends to bickering
- 6News video: Committee begins interviews in Nuss affair (06-08-06)
- 6News video: Committee begins investigation into Nuss affair (05-25-06)
- 6News video: Kansas lawmakers determine school finance plan (05-02-06)
- House panel votes to expand Nuss probe (06-09-06)
- Senator from Lawrence declines to testify for now (06-09-06)
- Senator denies court contact before Nuss lunch (06-08-06)
- Nuss says he regrets meeting (06-02-06)
- Supreme Court justices at a glance (08-20-04)
- More about the 'Nuss Fuss'
- More about the school finance case
"I happened to have heard this thing from Steve on March the 12th," Hensley told The Associated Press during an interview. "He said he'd gone to lunch with a Supreme Court justice, and the Supreme Court justice had indicated to him that he felt that a multiyear proposal would be a good thing."
Morris did not recall exactly what he told Hensley about his conversation with Nuss, but he said, "I do think we talked about it briefly."
Mays said he would allow the House committee to decide whom it will call as witnesses but added, "I imagine they'll want to talk to Senator Hensley."
"It does make one wonder how many others there are," he said of Hensley's disclosure.
Not only did Barnett learn about the conversation later than Hensley did, but Barnett said Saturday that he did not know that Morris had talked to a justice until Nuss stepped aside. Barnett said Morris told him only that he had spoken with someone who worked for a justice.
"The revelation about Justice Nuss was a complete surprise to me," Barnett said.
Barnett wrote a letter April 2 to the U.S. attorney's office. He said that office advised him to contact the Kansas attorney general's office.
Barnett's conversation with Morris on March 31 occurred the day after the Senate rejected Barnett's four-year, $495 million plan on a 20-20 vote. Searching for another vote to pass his bill, Barnett said he wanted to know why Morris wouldn't support it.
Barnett said Morris told him the following: A court employee had told Morris that if a plan reached a certain size, had bipartisan support and was signed by Sebelius, the employee's boss, a justice, could persuade the rest of the court to accept the plan and end the lawsuit.
Morris has said such a statement is not true. He has said he told others only that he had had contact with someone associated with the court.
Barnett, who is seeking the GOP nomination for governor, said he worried that if he went public, he would be accused of relating the story for political purposes.