Wichita Kansas judges who improperly discuss cases, file tardy financial disclosures or make other ethical violations are allowed to escape public scrutiny because most infractions are kept private.
Just eight of the 65 cases involving violations of the Kansas Supreme Court's Code of Judicial Conduct in the past six years were made public to the voters who elect the judges. Even among the eight cases that were made public, often only scant information was released.
Judges enjoy a level of privacy not given to those in the legislative or executive branches of government, but their status is not unique to Kansas. Thirty-three other states have rules like Kansas that keep judicial conduct reports confidential.
Supporters of the rules say they allow minor infractions to be handled internally and serious ones to get the public scrutiny they deserve.
"These are minor instances of misconduct where the judges have admitted doing something wrong," said Cynthia Gray, director of the Center for Judicial Ethics in Chicago.
Evidence and testimony in judicial ethics cases are made public only if the judicial committee takes the case to a public hearing, which happens only if a judge disputes the findings. That has happened only three times in the past six years.
That shield of privacy doesn't sit well with everyone.
"When it comes to public officials, the public ought to be able to sort out what it thinks is important," said Steve Joseph, a Wichita lawyer.
The public has enjoyed such access during the recent investigation of Kansas Supreme Court Justice Lawton Nuss - under scrutiny for discussing a school finance case with lawmakers. If Nuss or the person who initiated the complaint, Chief Justice Kay McFarland, had not made it public, though, the complaint likely would have stayed secret.
There is some public oversight of judicial ethics. Four of the 14 members on the judicial qualification panel come from outside the legal world - currently, an educator, two journalists and a former lawmaker. The rest are judges, retired judges or lawyers.
Jennifer Jones, chairwoman of the judicial qualifications panel, said the commission always considers whether publishing a report would help other judges. She said the entire purpose of making findings public was to help judges improve their behavior.
"For the most part," Jones said, "I think my colleagues do a very good job judging themselves."
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