Topeka — State court officials are unsure whether a Kansas budget approved this year by the Legislature will allow them to avoid furloughs for employees, while still providing additional funding for operations and a new document system.
A special commission appointed by Kansas Chief Justice Lawton Nuss warned that absent adequate funding, statewide court operations could be forced to close as many as 10 days in the next fiscal year.
“Can I tell you there’s not a chance of furloughs? No,” said Sedgwick County Chief Judge James Fleetwood. “It’s honestly just too early to tell.”
Lawmakers passed a budget that makes up $2 million of a shortfall of $8.25 million, which the court system says should be fully funded to meet its needs. Extra filing fees also were approved, and supporters said those fees are expected to generate $4 million to $6.2 million during the fiscal year.
The Wichita Eagle reports the first $3.1 million of the extra fee revenue will go to a new electronic filing system, not toward reducing the shortfall. The budget was sent to Republican Gov. Sam Brownback for him to sign shortly before legislators took a three-week recess on April 6.
Lisa Taylor, spokeswoman for the Kansas Supreme Court, agreed that it was too early to say if the new fees will help avoid employee furloughs.
“The challenge is that we are not absolutely certain how much money will be generated,” she said. “We won’t know until we know.”
The funding was tied to a fee for filing summary judgments, which are filed before a case goes to trial seeking a judge to rule in a party’s favor. Currently there is no fee for the optional motions, but those will now cost attorneys $195 each time one is filed. Fleetwood said there was no way to predict how many attorneys would simply not file the motion.
Taylor said legislators based the fee and the revenue estimates on similar summary judgment filings at the federal level, but that such filings aren’t tracked at the state level.
Beyond the funding, the bill sent to Brownback also removes the Supreme Court’s power to appoint chief judges in the state’s 31 judicial districts. The individual districts also gain the authority to set their own budgets. The bill was written in a manner that prevents the Supreme Court from invalidating those provisions without also stopping the new funding mechanisms.
Taylor said changes in how budgets are set could be problematic for the local districts and remove the flexibility at the state level to divert funds to smaller jurisdictions to cover expenses, such as a lengthy capital murder trial.
“When it’s managed centrally, we can shift things around as needed in response to changing demands,” Taylor said. “Having district budgets, we may not have that flexibility.”
The new case management system will receive $3.1 million to create a new statewide system for processing documents filed with the clerks. Taylor said the project would build a statewide system that would allow filing duties to be shifted to other parts of the state when backlogs occur in busier jurisdictions.