During last week’s meetings at Kansas University, a state legislator warned KU officials that a Kansas Supreme Court ruling that orders additional funding for K-12 schools in the state would result in significant funding decreases for higher education.
“You really do have a horse in the race,” Rep. Jerry Lunn, R-Overland Park, told KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little, adding that the chancellor would do well to “talk to your friendly Supreme Court justice.”
Lunn’s implication was that the court’s decision on the school finance case might be influenced or altered by the lobbying efforts of Gray-Little or other higher education officials — a situation that Kansans should fervently hope is not the case.
The legislator’s statement appears to reflect a lack of understanding of the nature of the state’s judiciary. Unlike elected state legislators and the governor who are directly responsible to Kansas voters and the ever-changing current of public opinion, the Kansas Supreme Court is designed to resist the pressures of public opinion. The court’s justices should serve one master in the decisions they render: the laws of Kansas as contained in the state’s constitution and statutes.
Whether the state or nation’s courts are politically conservative or liberal is a topic of considerable debate these days. In Kansas, changes in the way members of the Kansas Court of Appeals are appointed, as well as attempts to impose similar changes to state Supreme Court appointments, are driven by what proponents say is an effort to make the process more democratic or responsive to the public.
That may sound like a positive move, but the reality is that the judicial branch needs to be as insulated as possible from political influence and shifts in public opinion. The duty of judges and justices is to interpret and enforce the law. If existing laws, for whatever reason, no longer reflect the public will, the legislative and executive branches have the power to seek changes in those laws.
In that process, lawmakers should be influenced by the lobbying efforts of any Kansan concerned about the law. Once that process is finished and laws are passed, it is up to state courts to interpret and enforce the law, not respond to lobbyists or outside influences.
The school finance case now before the Kansas Supreme Court certainly is important to the state, but it’s outcome must be determined in a court of law, not the court of public opinion.