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Archive for Tuesday, May 30, 2006

House panel in awkward position of investigating senators in Nuss case

May 30, 2006

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— Under the state constitution, the House and Senate have their own rules, and each judges whether members are qualified to serve.

But in examining whether a Kansas Supreme Court justice improperly communicated with legislators about school finance issues, a House committee is investigating questions involving only senators. Its first witnesses include the Senate's top leader, and other senators could be asked to testify.

Those facts create an awkward - and perhaps unprecedented - situation for the Legislature.

"Everybody needs to be mindful of the precedents that could be set here," said Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, R-Independence, himself a potential witness for the House committee. "Over time, there are a whole range of things that various legislators are interested in looking into, and until now, the custom has been not to go down the road of one house investigating the other."

The 10-member committee, appointed by House Speaker Doug Mays, plans to meet June 7 and 8 at the Statehouse and could take testimony throughout the summer.

"We're all Kansas citizens, and we should all be interested in the truth and clearing the air, notwithstanding our tender pride," said Mays, R-Topeka.

The House committee is investigating whether the Legislature's approval of a three-year, $541 million school finance plan was influenced by a March 1 lunchtime conversation between Justice Lawton Nuss and Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, and Sen. Pete Brungardt, R-Salina, a longtime Nuss friend.

Participants said the discussion about education funding lasted about five minutes, with Nuss showing the others a spreadsheet comparing numbers of various alternatives.

An education funding lawsuit is still before the court, with legislators facing a mandate to increase aid to public schools. The state's code of Judicial Conduct prohibits a justice from discussing pending cases with outsiders.

Nuss removed himself from the lawsuit April 20, after a reporter asked whether anyone associated with the court had talked to legislators about school finance. The attorney general's office has launched its own inquiry, and Nuss faces a complaint filed with the Commission on Judicial Qualifications.

The House committee's chairman, Rep. Mike O'Neal, R-Hutchinson, contends his panel's inquiry is not about Nuss but about how his conversation shaped events - and about preventing improper communications in the future.

Morris and Brungardt aren't the only senators who are potential witnesses, because Morris told at least seven others, including Schmidt, about having contact with someone in the judicial branch. He also made a comment during a March meeting with Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.

The panel plans to leave disciplining Nuss to the Commission on Judicial Qualifications. Also, under the constitution, only the Senate can discipline its members, and no House members appear to be involved in the Nuss case.

"You have to ask the question, what exactly is our purpose?" said Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, a committee member. "To say the House is going to do something, where we don't have any authority over senators, seems to be, maybe, a waste of taxpayer money."

Investigating committees are unusual, with three appointed by legislative leaders in the past two decades, on prisons in 1988, state pension fund investment losses in 1991, and on problems within the state's weights and measures program in 1996. All three panels had members from both chambers.

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