The governor and state legislators should not be surprised by Wednesday’s Supreme Court action striking down a state law that changed how chief judges are selected in district courts across the state.
The only mystery now is how the Kansas Legislature will address another provision of that law that automatically defunds the state’s court system as a result of Wednesday’s ruling.
Despite some denials from legislative leaders, it’s hard to believe lawmakers didn’t intend to pick a fight with the courts when they passed this law. They said that requiring chief judges to be elected by the other judges in their districts, rather than appointed by the Supreme Court, was an effort to impose more local control, but it was obvious from the beginning that the law would be challenged as an unconstitutional infringement of the judicial branch’s authority to oversee state courts.
To make things worse, legislators added a “nonseverability clause” to the bill, nullifying the judicial budget if other parts of the bill were struck down. That clause also is the subject of court action, and an injunction in that case will keep money flowing to the courts at least until mid-March.
That gives the Legislature a little time after it returns in January to deal with this mess. Hopefully, the legislators who championed this bill last session will bring a different attitude to Topeka in January and work to ease the growing animosity of the legislative and executive branches toward the state court system. Unfortunately, such a change of heart is not guaranteed or, perhaps, even likely. Instead, many observers expect lawmakers to push for new judicial selection laws and perhaps other measures aimed at the courts.
Just for the record, the Supreme Court unanimously concluded that the statute violated the state’s constitutional separation of powers. Even Justice Caleb Stegall, Gov. Sam Brownback’s only appointment to the court, concurred, although he wrote a separate opinion that offered some different reasoning.
The law that was struck down Wednesday was an attack on the separation of powers that is essential to the government of the state. Tying that law to the judicial branch’s budget was a legislative power play that failed. Pressing that case will only push the state toward a constitutional crisis that benefits no one. Approving funding for the judicial branch — without further political games — should be at the top of the Legislature’s agenda when it convenes in January.