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Archive for Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Kan. chief justice: Cuts stop review, close courts

February 16, 2011

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— Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton Nuss warned legislators Tuesday evening that any budget cuts for the judicial branch will close courthouses extra days and halt an effort to make operations more efficient.

Nuss used most of his State of the Judiciary address to outline plans for examining the court system's operations this year. Last month, the Supreme Court formed a review commission, and two weeks ago, it launched an intensive study of workloads in judicial offices across the state.

But speaking to a joint session of the Legislature in the House chamber, Nuss noted that budget problems last year forced the court to close four extra days, keeping employees home without pay.

Legislators haven't yet proposed reductions in the judicial branch's current, $125 million budget even as they consider reductions elsewhere in state government. Gov. Sam Brownback asked lawmakers to trim spending from other current budgets and roll over the savings to help close a projected $492 million shortfall for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

"Less funding than that means closing courts, very quickly," Nuss said. "I fully appreciate that this is a big request, given the economic situation, but I ask you to please consider this: Fundamental rights of Kansans are jeopardized when courts are closed."

Nuss also urged legislators to avoid touching the judicial branch's request for a 5.2 percent increase in its total budget for the next fiscal year, which would increase its spending to $131.5 million, or by $6.5 million.

"Funding cuts also jeopardize the completion of our current court review project," Nuss said. "It's ironic, if not, in some sense, tragic."

Over the past decade, chief justices have most often delivered the annual State of the Judiciary address in writing, but the late Chief Justice Robert Davis made a speech in 2009. Nuss became chief justice in August, when Davis retired from the court a day before his death from a lengthy illness.

Sen. John Vratil, chairman of a Senate Ways and Means subcommittee handling the judiciary's budget, said it will follow Nuss' requests on the budget.

"That's very doable," said Vratil, a Leawood Republican and an attorney. "Our recommendation will be to give them the money they need to keep the courts open."

House Speaker Mike O'Neal, a Hutchinson Republican, also an attorney, was less certain.

"That's what we're hearing from everybody, and I would not expect anything less from him," O'Neal said.

But O'Neal praised Nuss and the court for "a little bit more of a global view" of the budget. Nuss acknowledged that the state's financial problems make budgeting tough and thanked legislators for preventing even more extensive furloughs of court employees.

"I realize that, that was not an easy decision during hard economic times. For in order to tell us yes, you had to tell many others no," Nuss said. "I appreciate the courage it took to make that decision."

Nuss said the workload study will give state officials accurate information about the burdens on employees in different parts of the state.

Not only will it examine the number of cases and tasks handled by various courts, it will attempt to adjust that data for complexity so that, for example, a first-degree murder case will count more than a robbery case. It's the first time in Kansas such a study has been attempted.

He said the Supreme Court expects to have the data from the study and additional information collected by the review commission in January 2012, so the justices can consider changes. The commission has 24 members, including appointees of legislative leaders, Brownback and his predecessor, former Gov. Mark Parkinson.

The commission, which begins meeting next month, can consider issues such as the number of court offices, their hours of operation, use of technology to lower costs and increasing the system's flexibility in using its staff. Nuss said the goals are to improve Kansans' access to justice while delivering services as cost-effectively as possible.

"We decided to be pro-active instead of just reactive," Nuss said. "Allow us to finish this project, without interruption, for the benefit of Kansas."

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