Kansas Supreme Court Justice Lawton Nuss made a mistake on March 1 when he had lunch with two legislators, Senate President Steve Morris of Hugoton and Sen. Pete Brungardt of Salina, an old friend of Justice Nuss. At that lunch they talked about the school finance case currently pending before the Supreme Court. This conversation was almost certainly a violation of Supreme Court Rule 601A, which makes it unethical for judges to discuss pending cases with third parties or with one litigant and not another. So far, these are the known facts.
Justice Nuss recused himself from further involvement with the case once he became aware that his lunch was problematic. Further, Chief Justice Kay McFarland referred the entire matter to the Commission on Judicial Qualifications, a 14-member board consisting of retired judges, lawyers and ordinary people which has the legal charge to investigate alleged violations of judicial ethics. In so doing, Chief Justice McFarland did exactly what the law called for her to do. In due course, the commission will report on the results of its investigation and, if disciplinary actions against Justice Nuss are called for, they will be imposed.
Now, however, Justice Nuss' lunch has become a political football and the justice appears to be the subject of a political witch hunt by several state legislators. Talk of conspiracy and "activist" judges is all over the state. Such talk is unfair and patently absurd. Let's look at some other facts about Justice Nuss and Sens. Morris and Brungardt.
Justice Nuss is a Kansan who served in the Marine Corps after graduating from Kansas University. He is a Republican from Salina appointed by a Republican governor. He is anything but a wild-eyed leftist or activist. He is universally liked and admired by his colleagues.
Sens. Morris and Brungardt are Republicans. Neither is known for particularly leftist views. All three had lunch together and talked about something they shouldn't have talked about. It was a mistake. Justice Nuss may well be punished in some way for it. But there is no reason whatsoever to think anything else went on and a great many reasons to think nothing else went on.
Further, to see these three staunch Republicans as part of a vast left-wing conspiracy is just nutty. The truth is, Justice Nuss has become a scapegoat in a contest within the Republican Party between the more conservative and more moderate elements therein. House Speaker Doug Mays has now announced he will form a committee to investigate the conversation. This lamentable political battle, which will be both costly and time-consuming, is more about the upcoming elections than about judicial ethics.
For the sake of the state and out of fairness to Justice Nuss, it is time for this battle to stop. The Legislature has better things to do with its time and taxpayer dollars. The legislators who think they need a separate investigation should let the judicial qualifications commission do its legally mandated work. If they continue on the path they seem determined to take, then, perhaps, they ought to don pilgrim's garb, change their names to Mather and get the fires burning, for what we'll have is nothing less than a good old-fashioned witch hunt. Shame!