TOPEKA — A Kansas Supreme Court justice violated judicial rules during a lunch when he and two senators discussed the way Kansas lawmakers fund public schools, which is at the heart of a lawsuit still before the high court, according to a complaint filed today.
The complaint, filed by an examiner for the Commission on Judicial Qualifications, accuses Nuss of violating three canons of the judiciary's code of conduct by having a March 1 conversation with Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, and Sen. Pete Brungardt, R-Salina, a longtime Nuss friend.
The senators said they briefly discussed school finance issues, with an education funding lawsuit still before the court, which had mandated the state spend more money on education.
Nuss has until June 1 to respond.
The commission would recommend to the Supreme Court what disciplinary action, if any, should be taken. The Supreme Court could censure Nuss or suspend him from the bench. Under the Kansas Constitution, a justice can be removed only if the House impeaches him and two-thirds of the Senate votes to convict.
On April 20, Nuss removed himself from the school finance case after a reporter asked the court if any conversation between any legislator or court member took place. Four days later, Chief Justice Kay McFarland asked the commission to look into the matter.
The judicial complaint from Examiner Edward G. Collister Jr. came a day after a Republican senator who has been critical of both Nuss and the court's decisions on school finance called for him to resign.
Sen. Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler, called Nuss' conversation "a very flagrant violation" of the judiciary's code of conduct, which does not allow judges to discuss cases without all parties represented.
"I think to clear the air, I think he should resign," Huelskamp said during a news conference Thursday. "What kind of communications did occur? I think, potentially, there are other justices who may or may not be involved. We're just trying to get to the bottom of this."
Besides the commission's investigation, the attorney general's office is conducting an inquiry, and House Speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka, has appointed a 10-member investigating committee.
Collister's complaint accuses Nuss of violating a provision of the judiciary's code of conduct that requires jurists to "uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary."
Also, it says he violated other sections that require a justice or judge "to avoid impropriety or appearance of impropriety" and "perform the duties of judicial office impartially and diligently."
Morris, R-Hugoton, said he anticipates being called to testify during the commission's investigation and didn't want to comment further.
Court spokesman Ron Keefover has said Nuss' conversation with the senators was the only contact between the court and legislators on school finance issues. He declined Thursday to respond to Huelskamp's comments.
Morris and Brungardt have said Nuss brought a spreadsheet to lunch and sought to clarify numbers about various school finance proposals. Morris has said Nuss suggested a bipartisan plan would be helpful.
Legislators approved a plan to increase funding for public schools by $541 million over three years before adjourning their wrap-up session Wednesday night. The plan is designed to answer the court's mandate.
Huelskamp and other conservative Republicans - who have opposed such large increases in education funding - have questioned whether there has been collusion among legislators, the governor's office and the court over school finance legislation, despite repeated statements to the contrary.
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