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Archive for Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Panel continues review of Nuss meeting

September 20, 2006

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— A month after a judicial commission issued a verdict, a House committee hasn't finished its review of a conversation between two senators and a Kansas Supreme Court justice about education funding.

The committee could issue its report by the end of October, Chairman Mike O'Neal said Tuesday. The panel is set to meet Oct. 3 at the Statehouse, but O'Neal said its session could be earlier to accommodate members' schedules.

The Commission on Judicial Qualifications concluded last month that the March 1 lunchtime conversation involving Justice Lawton Nuss, Senate President Steve Morris and Sen. Pete Brungardt was improper. It ordered Nuss to avoid future violations of the ethical code governing the behavior of judges and justices, but it did not forward his case to the Supreme Court for additional sanctions.

The conversation occurred while an education funding lawsuit was before the Supreme Court, and justices are prohibited from discussing pending cases with outsiders. Nuss removed himself from the lawsuit April 20.

The House committee's task is to review whether the conversation influenced the Legislature's approval this year of a plan to phase in a $466 million increase in aid to public schools. After reviewing the plan, the Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit.

"We need to throw a spotlight on this to make sure that a senator or representative does not either intentionally or unintentionally find themselves in that kind of a situation again," said O'Neal, R-Hutchinson.

Some committee members still question whether the Nuss conversation was the only contact among the court, its employees and the Legislature or executive branch. Their questions stem from what several senators said Morris told them later in March, after his lunch with Nuss.

Both Morris and the court have said Nuss' conversation was the only contact between the court and outsiders about school finance.

"I still think there are a lot of apparent inconsistencies," said Rep. Lance Kinzer, R-Olathe. "One of the crucial outstanding issues is whether or not there was an ongoing course of conduct in terms of inappropriate communications."

Democrats long have questioned the need for the House investigation, given the Commission on Judicial Qualifications' own proceedings.

Both Morris and Brungardt declined to testify before the committee, citing the long-standing tradition of not having one chamber investigate members of the other.

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