Archive for Friday, August 11, 2006

Nuss offers apology at hearing

State Supreme Court judge admits ‘mistakes’ during school finance discussion

August 11, 2006


— Kansas Supreme Court Justice Lawton Nuss says he wanted to have lunch with an old friend to try to ease tensions between the Legislature and court.

On his way out the door to meet state Sen. Pete Brungardt, Nuss says he grabbed a chart he had put together on school funding.

So began an episode that led to Thursday's unprecedented hearing where Nuss faced a disciplinary panel for discussing a pending case outside the courtroom.

It was the first time in history that a Kansas Supreme Court justice was required to explain his conduct before the Kansas Commission on Judicial Qualifications.

"I overstepped. I apologize for that," Nuss said during an hour and 45 minutes of testimony. "I also ask for the opportunity to learn from my mistakes."

Nuss' legal team downplayed the incident, asking the seven-member panel to clear the justice of any wrongdoing, or at most to issue a private warning.

Jennifer Jones, a judge from Wichita who is chairwoman of the commission, said whatever decision the panel reaches, it will be made public because of interest in the case.

She said there was no timetable on when a verdict would be delivered; typically the commission takes several months to rule.

The commission could issue a letter of reprimand, censure or recommend temporary suspension by the state Supreme Court. A justice can be removed from the court if the House impeaches and the Senate convicts with a two-thirds majority.

Lunch bunch

The dispute stems from a March 1 lunch at a Topeka restaurant between Nuss and Brungardt, R-Salina. Later, they were joined by Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton.

At the time, the school finance lawsuit was the most high-profile case before the Kansas Supreme Court. The court had declared the school funding system unconstitutional because it shortchanged all students, especially low-income districts. It also had ordered lawmakers to increase funding.

Last month, the court approved the Legislature's new $466 million, three-year funding increase.

During the lunch meeting, Nuss asked both legislators if a newspaper account of a proposed House bill on school finance had the accurate amount of funding. He had a sheet of paper that listed the funding amount of the House bill and two education cost studies.

Nuss said he asked about it because he wanted to stay on top of developments in the case so that when the court acted on whatever the Legislature did, it could work quickly and not inconvenience the school system.

"I was really and truly trying to do my best as a justice," Nuss said.

He said he initially sought out his friend Brungardt for a talk because he was concerned about some lawmakers making disparaging comments about the court after it ruled against the state in school finance and the death penalty.

Nuss also said that he emphasized to the two legislators that nothing he said at lunch should be construed as an indication of what he or any other member of the court thought about the issue of school finance.

Charges outlined

But the commission's hearings examiner, Edward Collister, a lawyer from Lawrence, repeated the allegations against Nuss.

"The evidence is clear," Collister said. "Not only did Justice Nuss make a mistake : but it was a mistake that had some consequences."

Nuss is accused of violating the Kansas Canons of Judicial Conduct, which prohibit judges from meeting with select, interested parties in a pending case and from doing research on cases that is independent of what has been entered into the record of a lawsuit.

After word leaked about the lunch meeting, Nuss removed himself April 20 from further proceedings in the case.

Kansas Supreme Court Justice Kay McFarland called for an investigation by the commission, and House leaders formed a committee to investigate the incident.

"There is a violation and there should be a consequence," Collister said.

Senators testify

Both Brungardt and Morris testified after first being subpoenaed but later agreeing to speak voluntarily.

Their version of the lunch conversation agreed with what Nuss had said, which produced a major conflict with earlier comments.

After news of the lunch broke in April, Morris publicly stated that Nuss had said he was pleased to hear reports that legislative leaders were seeking a bipartisan school finance plan.

Critics have said Morris' comment helped defeat a smaller school finance proposal in the Senate that was supported only by Republicans.

But on Thursday, Morris backed off that statement.

"I can't say for sure" that Nuss had said that, Morris testified.

Nuss denied saying that he told the two senators that he or anyone else on the court favored a bipartisan plan.

Sen. Jim Barnett, R-Emporia, author of that failed school plan, said Morris had changed his story.

"In meetings with me and other colleagues in the Senate, he did state that a bipartisan plan was one of the specific requirements that was put forth," said Barnett, who now is the Republican Party candidate for governor.

No harm

Nuss' attorneys argued that the justice suffered a "brief lapse" from observing the judicial code, and that no harm was done because the conversation didn't influence Morris or Brungardt, and the House bill never was approved.

"This was a single, simple mistake with no intent to do wrong," said attorney Nick Badgerow.

The incident stoked criticism of the court as overreaching and heightened speculation of "back-door" communications between the court and state officials.

But Badgerow urged the commission to ignore the political storm, which he said was fueled by election-year rhetoric.

Nuss said he was embarrassed by the incident and regretted it. "I feel very foolish for what I did," he said.


Godot 11 years, 9 months ago

It is not the role of a Supreme Court justice to interfere with the legislative process. He arranged the luncheon with the intent of influencing legislation. He must be removed from the bench.

Jamesaust 11 years, 9 months ago

Its important not to confuse corruption with impropriety. This was improper precisely because it created the appearance of corruption and availed demogogues the opportunity to undermine the constitutional division of powers.

The punishment for corruption is removal from the bench and criminal prosecution.

The punishment for impropriety is admonishment and removal from the case at hand.

c_doc77 11 years, 9 months ago

Sure, corruption runs rampant in government. It is to be expected, to some extent. The core of the issue of any kind of corruption is the desire to wield power, either through wealth or other political means. However, we do not expect our local media to sell out to the same kind of corporate mentality that facilitates corruption.

Ask yourself this: Why is the Journal-World seeking to eliminate local opinions where entertainment is concerned, and in it's place insert opinions corporately distributed by the Associated Press? Smell any corruption here? The World Company does a good job at disguising itself as part of the community, but when one company controls so much of the media in one town it has the power to influence attitudes. We must ask whether we are the source of our own opinions, or a sounding board for the status quo. Sure nationally syndicated articles are okay, but they are no substitute for local sentiment.

For more information and an excellent blog, read Eric Melin's article on under the movie section, sub section Scene-Stealers.

prioress 11 years, 9 months ago

Pretty strong, unsubstantiated statements about Sebelius and the courts. I suppose it is a good thing it's difficult to sue anonymous posters when they try to ruin an individual's reputation. I realize they are "public" figures, but it's interesting to see how brave one can be in the basement with a keyboard and a bad attitude. The "Nuss Fuss" was, for the most part, a tempest in a teapot.

Wilbur_Nether 11 years, 9 months ago

parkay, I would be interested in the evidence that "the deliberate botching" was purposeful and under the direction of the Governor. I doubt the evidence supports the conclusion, any more than the "evidence" in Fahrenheit 9/11 supported Moore's conclusions there. Just as I would like c_doc77 to demonstrate that corruption is more rampant in government than in any other sector--and I promise not to use Westar, Enron, Arthur Andersen, Tyco, Worldcom, or Martha Stewart as counterexamples of corruption outside of government. Jamesaust, you make a very good distinction between impropriety and corruption--a subtlety that, given the average I.Q. on this forum, ought be obvious, one should think. Look, these folks are hired from the same labor pool as everyone else. It shouldn't be too surprising that some occassionally show the same character flaws.

Jamesaust 11 years, 9 months ago

parkay - I believe its safe to assume that you just make this stuff up.
May I recommend a more entertaining imagination?

yourworstnightmare 11 years, 9 months ago

JA is correct to distinguish impropriety from corruption.

Nuss can't be blamed, as he was only following the example of the highest court in the land. Hunting with Dick Cheney with issues pending before the Supreme Court was no problem for Antonin Scalia.

Jamesaust 11 years, 9 months ago

Touche, nightmare.

Almost as bad as Supreme Court Justice William Douglas' regular pokerplaying with President Roosevelt, which almost got him onto the Democrat ticket in 1944 (to be beat out for the spot by an obscure politician from Missouri).

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