State Sen. Jeff King is right in saying, “More positive relations between the judicial branch and the legislative branch would be helpful to everyone,” but it seems the two entities have a ways to go to accomplish that goal.
Last month, Lawton Nuss, chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court, announced that cuts to the state’s judicial budget could result in the need to shut down all state courts for as much as seven weeks in the current fiscal year. The Legislature appropriated $127 million for the judicial branch this year and $128 million for next year, compared to $132 million last year. Given that about 96 percent of the state’s judicial budget goes to salaries, staffing is the primary issue. There is virtually no way to absorb that kind of cut without ordering staff furloughs that make it difficult to keep the state courts operating. Never mind any possibility of raises for court personnel or other spending to improve court operations.
To help the courts deal with this situation, Nuss has appointed a 10-member budget advisory committee to study the issue and assess the consequences if the Kansas Legislature fails to raise financial support for the courts.
About a week later, King, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, decided to step into the situation by writing a letter to the advisory committee members advising them that the situation was not as dire as Nuss portrayed it. He also wanted to inform the committee about the efforts and recommendations of a group appointed in 2010 to study judicial issues. That Blue Ribbon Commission issued a 154-page report in January 2012 recommending a number of legislative actions that would increase court efficiency. Those measures included giving the courts more staffing flexibility by repealing a law that requires each of the state’s 105 counties to have at least one judge and improving the court system’s technology to allow court documents to be filed, stored and accessed electronically.
Those seem like common sense recommendations, but, as King acknowledged, they were never implemented by legislators. It seems a bit presumptuous for King to seek to inform the new advisory committee about earlier recommendations of which they almost certainly were aware, but his letter does serve to direct the blame back to where it more rightfully belongs: with state legislators. Rather than working with the judicial branch to find suitable cuts and efficiencies, legislators simply cut the judicial budget without taking any of the policy actions that might have helped accommodate those cuts.
King says he expects legislators to revisit the judicial budget for next year. The fact that he calls attention to the 2012 recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Committee also implies that perhaps legislators will take another look at some of those ideas. If legislators want to forge “more positive relations” with the judicial branch, that would be a good first step.