Kansas Senate advances judicial budget Democrats call unconstitutional
Topeka ? The Kansas Senate endorsed a bill Sunday that funds the judicial branch of state government for the next two years. But the funding would go away if the Kansas Supreme Court overturns a 2014 law that takes away the court’s power to name chief judges of district courts.
Only a day earlier, the Senate had voted 21-18 to reject that bill and send it back to a conference committee. But Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita, one of those who voted against the bill Saturday, made a motion to reconsider.
It passed Sunday, 25-14. Democratic Sens. Marci Francisco, of Lawrence, and Tom Holland, of Baldwin City, both voted against the bill.
It now goes to the House for an up or down vote, and if it passes there, it will be sent to Gov. Sam Brownback.
Last year, lawmakers passed a judicial budget that included several other judicial policy measures, most related to docket fees and other kinds of fees that courts can charge. But it also included a provision saying district court chief judges will be elected from among all the judges in the district.
Previously, the Supreme Court appointed each of the district court chief judges. That was based on a provision of the Kansas Constitution that gives the court “general administrative authority over all courts in this state.”
Last year’s bill also included a “nonseverability” clause, which means if any part of the bill is overturned by the courts, all other parts of the bill, including the funding for the courts, are overturned as well.
In February, Judge Larry T. Solomon, chief judge of the 30th District Court in Kingman County, filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the judicial selection provision. That case is still pending in Shawnee County District Court.
The nonseverability clause, however, only applied to the budget that was passed last year. If it is not renewed in the new budget bill, the judicial selection law would no longer be tied to the budget.
Democrats, and some Republicans, argued that the nonseverability clause is itself unconstitutional because it interferes with the autonomy of the judicial branch.
“This is really overstepping,” said Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka. “We are using the power of the purse to force judges into doing something we want them to do, even though it’s unconstitutional.”
Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said that between the Saturday and Sunday votes, he had heard from several judges who supported passing the bill, even with the nonseverability clause in it.
He contended that while some judges who lobby on behalf of the judiciary had opposed the bill, the majority of judges in the state supported passing it, even though many opposed the controversial language.