Why don't Kansas House members just go across the street and deflate the tires on the justices' cars?
Such a childish prank makes about as much sense as the actions a majority of House members currently are taking to express their displeasure with the Kansas Supreme Court. In an effort to get back at the justices for some rulings they disliked, legislators are taking actions that will severely hinder the ability of the entire court system to function on behalf of Kansans.
A budget bill approved by the House on Friday sliced $3.7 million from the judicial branch's "maintenance" budget, the proposal simply to maintain at current levels of service in the state courts from the Supreme Court down to district courts. Then, House members took pre-emptive action by prohibiting the judiciary from raising lawsuit filing fees or other fees to try to offset the loss of revenue.
The result is a budget that will have no effect on the salaries of the Supreme Court justices who angered legislators, but will force deep cuts in salaries for support staff for all state courts, including Douglas County District Court. The salaries of justices, appellate judges and district judges can't be reduced in the middle of their terms, so all of the cuts would have to be made elsewhere. The lost dollars, according to court officials, translate into 17 days worth of expenses for the entire court system.
If the budget holds, about the only option available to state courts would be to reduce staff hours and perhaps consider shorter hours or fewer work days for staff members. Either of those options translates into delays and reduced service for people involved in the court system. On any given day, that could be any Kansan forced to seek redress or defend himself or herself in a court proceeding.
It's pretty clear that House members who voted in favor of the budget cuts were trying to reprimand the court. "There's a lot of resentment in the House," said Speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka. "Some people are willing to act on that resentment."
Many legislators were angered at last year's Kansas Supreme Court ruling on school finance that forced a special legislative session. Some lawmakers also balked at the court's decision several years ago to try to shore up its budget by passing "emergency" surcharges to raise additional funds that legislators were unwilling to provide. In both matters, some legislators contend the court has overstepped its powers.
It appears that cooler heads may prevail in the Kansas Senate, which is working on a proposed budget that would allow the Supreme Court to continue levying surcharges. Some senators also contend that the surcharges are unconstitutional because they constitute a judicial tax. But given the option of keeping the surcharges or raising court funding from other sources, they are willing to accept the increased fees.
Having the Legislature oversee the judicial budget is part of our system of checks and balances, but it shouldn't be used as an opportunity for lawmakers to seek childish retribution - especially when that action will have a far greater impact on private Kansas residents than on the judges and justices who are the object of legislators' scorn.