Topeka An ethics complaint against Kansas Supreme Court Justice Lawton Nuss over his brief discussion about school finance with two senators resulted Friday in a warning from a state commission but no recommendation that he be punished further.
The Commission on Judicial Qualifications admonished Nuss that his March 1 lunchtime conversation violated the code of conduct for judges and justices, and ordered him to avoid future violations.
However, the commission's report ended the case against Nuss without any recommendation that the Supreme Court take disciplinary action. The court doesn't view such admonishments as punishment, only a warning and instructions not to repeat the mistake.
Still, it's the first known case of a justice being admonished publicly, said Ron Keefover, the court's spokesman. Also, the admonishment was the strongest sanction the commission could impose without recommending further action by the Supreme Court such as censure or suspension.
"The fact that it occurred will still catch people's attention," said Rep. Lance Kinzer, R-Olathe, a lawyer who serves on a House committee investigating the Nuss case. "Certainly, we expect members of the courts, particularly the Supreme Court, to be extremely cautious about judicial conduct."
Nuss' conversation with Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, and Sen. Pete Brungardt, R-Salina, resulted in Chief Justice Kay McFarland asking the commission to investigate at a time when the Legislature was under a court mandate to spend more money for education.
Nuss removes self
Nuss removed himself from the school funding lawsuit in April, and the court dismissed the case in July, after concluding lawmakers had complied with orders to dramatically increase spending on public schools.
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
"It's always seemed to me that the proper venue to figure out what really happened was the qualifications commission, and it seems they've done that. It seems to me the fact-finding is now complete," said Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, R-Independence. "There needed to be an investigation. There has been."
However, the commission's action wasn't likely to assuage conservative Republicans who've been critical of the court for ordering the Legislature to spend more money on schools.
Sen. Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler, predicted the Nuss case would fuel public interest in having Supreme Court justices elected or appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.
"When you look to the courts as an institution to police themselves, you're usually disappointed," Huelskamp said.
'Appearance of impropriety'
The commission said Nuss' conversation resulted in "the appearance of impropriety which undermines public confidence in the judiciary."
But it also noted what it called Nuss' successful careers as a Marine officer, a lawyer and a justice.
"Many testified, by letter and personally, to his dedication and character," the commission's report said.
It added: "The object of a judicial proceeding such as this one is to uphold the canons of judicial conduct and thereby protect the parties to litigation and the public. The admonition and cease-and-desist order entered here accomplish that goal."
Steven Pigg, an attorney representing Nuss, declined to comment, and another Nuss attorney, Nick Badgerow, didn't return a phone call seeking comment. Morris said he was "satisfied with that outcome," and Brungardt did not return a call seeking comment.
Kinzer said the commission seemed to have a narrow focus on only Nuss' lunch and not on whether there were multiple attempts by the court or its employees to influence the Legislature's debate over school finance.
Allegations of more talks
Some conservative Republicans like Kinzer continue to allege multiple contacts between the court, its employees and legislators because of what Morris is supposed to have told other senators.
Kinzer said the commission's action will seem appropriate to people who perceive Nuss' lunch as a one-time event.
"That is, I think, the lightest possible treatment that I could have anticipated," Kinzer said. "There's a broader question here beyond just what happened at that lunch and how serious was it."
Three senators testified before the House committee that Morris told them he'd had contact with a court employee, using language suggesting it occurred more than once. Morris has insisted the lunch was his only contact with the court, as has the court itself.
"You've got to ask yourself: Do you believe that there was a one-time, non-preplanned informal discussion of school finance made in passing or do you believe that there was a more systematic discussion?" Kinzer said.
Sen. Phil Journey, R-Haysville, said he believes a public censure of Nuss by the court would have been appropriate.
"Should it develop there was a pattern of conversations, rather than a single passing comment, further review would be warranted," Journey said.