TOPEKA Gov. Kathleen Sebelius learned in March that Senate President Steve Morris had talked to a state Supreme Court justice about school finance issues, a top Democratic ally of hers said today.
Justice Lawton Nuss
More about Justice Lawton Nuss
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- 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
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- 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
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said Sebelius had an early morning meeting with him and Morris, R-Hugoton, at Cedar Crest, the governor's residence. Morris also acknowledged he mentioned having contact with the court in front of Sebelius, but he couldn't recall exactly what he said and when it occurred.
In a statement released late today by her office, Sebelius said, "I have no idea how many conversations Senators Hensley and Morris have had on this matter. In my presence, the only time Senator Morris ever referenced a communication with someone at the Court was at a breakfast meeting with Senator Hensley and my Chief of Staff, Troy Findley. His comment was off-hand and not specific, and at no time did Senator Morris refer to talking to a justice. I didn't think much of it at the time because legislators from both sides of the debate have repeatedly made comments claiming to know what the Court will or won't accept."
Sebelius spokeswoman Nicole Corcoran earlier said Morris told the governor only about a "back channel conversation" with someone at the court. Corcoran said Morris made the comment during a March 28 breakfast meeting.
"That reference was the only mention he made, and the governor didn't give it another thought," Corcoran said in an e-mail reply to questions from The Associated Press. "Senator Morris did not identify, nor did the governor ask, who the conversation was with."
On Saturday, Hensley said Morris had told him on March 12 that Morris had talked to a Supreme Court justice, but Hensley wouldn't say who else was in the meeting. On Monday, Hensley said Sebelius was there and the meeting likely took place on another day, though close to March 12.
Morris has said he, Supreme Court Justice Lawton Nuss and Sen. Pete Brungardt, R-Salina, a longtime Nuss friend, had a brief conversation during a March 1 lunch centering on the numbers involved in various education funding alternatives.
Asked whether he mentioned his contact with the Supreme Court in front of Sebelius, Morris told The Associated Press, "Yes."
He said he could not remember what he said or when he said it.
Hensley said the conversation was not detailed.
"As I recall, he didn't even identify who the individual was. He said he was a justice - I do recall that - but he didn't mention which justice," Hensley said. "I'm not sure he even said he had gone out to lunch with the guy, but he had talked to this guy."
The Nuss case has upset some legislators because a school finance lawsuit remains before the court, and lawmakers face a court mandate to increase aid to public schools. The state's code of judicial conduct generally prohibits justices from discussing pending cases outside the court unless all parties involved are present.
Nuss removed himself from the school finance lawsuit on April 20, the day a reporter asked the court whether anyone associated with the court had any conversations about school finance with legislators.
Hensley said Saturday that Morris had said a Supreme Court justice had indicated to him "that he felt that a multiyear proposal would be a good thing."
The governor told reporters Friday that she was "incredibly unhappy" to learn that a justice had talked to legislators about school finance issues. Sebelius worked eight years for the Kansas Trial Lawyers Assn. before winning a seat in the Kansas House in 1986; her husband, Gary, is a federal magistrate.
Asked whether Sebelius heard Morris' comment during the meeting, Hensley said, "I don't know why she wouldn't have heard it. I heard it, and I would assume she did, too."
Hensley remembered one other person being present but would not name the individual. Corcoran identified that person as Troy Findley, Sebelius' chief of staff.
"Since the beginning there have been all kinds of people saying they knew what the Court would or would not accept," Corcoran said, adding that the governor has always focused on cost studies and court opinions, rather than "third- or fourth-hand conversations."
As for Sebelius' unhappiness with Nuss, Corcoran said: "Governor Sebelius was shocked to later learn through press reports that Senator Morris' comment actually referred to a justice."
Nuss' lunch with Morris and Brungardt came a day before Morris and other Senate leaders outlined their plan for phasing in a $660 million increase in aid to public schools over three years, during a meeting of the Senate Education Committee. The Senate rejected a modified version of that plan on March 30.
Nuss faces an investigation by the Commission on Judicial Qualifications. House Speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka, plans to appoint a special committee to review the incident.
Mays said he expects to name the chairman this week, but other members later.
"It will up to them to pursue all this, to sort out what's important and what isn't," Mays said. "I'm going to let the committee sort it out. I'm not passing judgment on anything."