Topeka A House committee investigating allegations of improper communication on school finance between Kansas Supreme Court Justice Lawton Nuss and Senate President Steve Morris voted Thursday to expand its probe.
After hearing testimony from four senators, the committee voted along party lines to ask more officials to testify.
Chairman Mike O'Neal, R-Hutchinson, said he may even ask Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, to testify.
"In due time," O'Neal said when asked if he would request that Sebelius appear before the committee. "We're trying to tread carefully."
Democrats, however, minimized the committee's work.
When asked if the probe should continue, Vice Chairman Mike Peterson, D-Kansas City, quipped that he supposed it should "so people don't think we are wasting their money, which we are."
The dispute is over a March 1 lunch that Nuss had with Morris, R-Hugoton, and Sen. Pete Brungardt, R-Salina.
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
At that meeting, Nuss discussed legislation related to the pending school finance lawsuit before the court. It is a violation of judicial conduct to discuss a pending case with interested parties outside the courtroom.
Nuss later removed himself from future considerations of the case. The state's judicial disciplinary board is also currently considering charges of ethics violations against Nuss.
The focus of the committee's hearing on Thursday was testimony from senators on whether Nuss' conversation with Morris influenced the Senate's rejection of a school finance plan by Sen. Jim Barnett, R-Emporia.
The Legislature eventually approved a three-year $466 million school funding plan, which is currently being reviewed by the court. Barnett's plan would have increased funding by $495 million but over four years. It died on a tie 20-20 vote in the Senate.
Barnett and state Sen. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, testified that they had asked Morris to allow a reconsideration of the bill so that they could try to get one more vote to pass it.
But Barnett, Wagle, Sens. Pat Apple, R-Louisburg, and Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, all testified that Morris told them that he had a "backdoor communication" with the court, and that the Barnett plan wouldn't meet court approval.
"There's no doubt that influenced the outcome of my bill," said Barnett, who is seeking the GOP nomination for governor.
But Democrats on the House committee were skeptical.
Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, asked Barnett if it wasn't possible that his bill died because "it was bad education policy."
Ward said the Barnett plan failed to comply with the court's orders in the lawsuit.
Last year, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled the school finance system unconstitutional because it underfunded all students, especially those from low-income areas. It accepted a $290 million funding increase as a down payment on what a cost-study said was needed.
After nearly eight hours of testimony from the senators, O'Neal said he wanted to hear from Morris, Brungardt, Sen. Roger Pine, R-Lawrence, and Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, R-Independence.
Morris and Brungardt so far have declined to testify, citing a provision of the Kansas Constitution that says no legislator is required to answer for his speech or legislative votes.
O'Neal also said he wants Sebelius' chief of staff Troy Findley and Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley, of Topeka, to testify.
He said they are needed because they were present at a breakfast meeting with Sebelius and Morris when Morris has said he mentioned a communication with the court.
Sebelius has said she didn't take Morris' comment seriously and strongly denied she has had any communications with the court about school finance or any pending case.
Nicole Corcoran, a spokeswoman for Sebelius, said the office needs to hear from the committee first before deciding how to respond to its request.
"Once we hear something from them, we'll be happy to consider it," she said.