Archive for Saturday, August 19, 2006

Nuss gets off with warning over school finance talk

August 19, 2006


— 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.

"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.


fletch 11 years, 8 months ago

Pogo, I know Lawton Nuss personally. He's one of the most salt-of-the-earth people I've ever met. He's extremely connected to his community, and humble about his position within the judiciary.

If you're going to judge people based upon a salary that is dictated by the a third party (not asked for), then you're going to end up hating a whole lot of people. Go back to China, you freaking socialist.

dizzy_from_your_spin 11 years, 8 months ago

Pogo is correct: first year lawyers know better than discuss cases outside the courtroom and Nuss is a judge on the supreme court!

Would you want a judge on your court case discussing it with opposing counsel during a casual lunch?

While he may be salt-of-the-earth, he's also very arrogant or ignorant.

Truth be known, this is probably just one incident of many similar.

Dave1095 11 years, 8 months ago

Did you ever know someone who in a professional setting is an arrogant bully, but they never show this side to friends and aquaintances? I don't know him "personally' at all, but I'm just sayin..

Regardless if he is a great guy or a jerk- it should have no bearing on the case.

It's a simple case. He violated basic fundamental judicial ethics that any first year lawyer would understand. He should have to pay a price for that, whether intentional or not. If you believe unintentional, fine- It is still an unacceptable level of incompetence for a supreme court Justice. The public deserved to hear from the Court, and we never will because the JQ board didn't have the guts to put this in front of the Court.

And had JQ recommended discipline and it went to the court, then a genuine cost would have been assessed and Nuss could earn his redemption, instead of having it handed to him with a pat on the back for being a good guy. Let's remember something- Almost no matter what, he wouldn't have been removed. Only the legislature can do that. The Court could have suspended him for a while or made him stay late on detention and write 500 times "I am not Chief yet" or SOMETHING significant. As it is, this ruling has no real significance to anyone.

He walks on as if nothing ever happened, because nothing did happen.

Wilbur_Nether 11 years, 8 months ago

Pogo, I am interested in hearing the criteria you hold for determimning who is a "regular working man or woman." How would Nuss fail to meet that criteria? I don't think the salaries of our Supreme Court justices are out of line. Texas Supreme Court justices made around $150,000 last year. Ohio's SC judges made $135,000. Iowa's justices make around $128K and Nebraska's $123K.

Wilbur_Nether 11 years, 8 months ago

Pogo? Hello??

Must be out meetin' the enemy.

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