Topeka Republican leaders in the Legislature agreed Friday to hire former Republican Sen. Jeff King for $50,000 to advise and represent them in responding to the Kansas Supreme Court's recent decision ordering the state to increase school funding.
But Democrats on the Legislative Coordinating Council were harshly critical of the decision, saying King's track record on school funding issues and his sometimes-hostile relationship with the Supreme Court during his time in the Legislature could make him more of a liability than an asset.
"We've got several instances of conflict, changing the way the court's appointed, changing the way the court does its internal business," House Minority Leader Jim Ward said during debate over the hiring. Also, this particular person was an advocate and the drafter of the plan that got rejected and found unconstitutional, the block grant."
In 2014 and 2015, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, King pushed through bills that provided funding for the judicial system and also made significant policy changes in how the courts are administered. That included a provision to take away the Supreme Court's authority to designate the chief judges in district courts and giving that power to the district court judges themselves.
Most importantly, though, the bill contained a "nonseverability" clause that said if any part of the bill was struck down by the courts, everything else in the bill, including funding for the courts, would also become null and void.
The Supreme Court did overturn that law, saying it violated a provision of the Kansas Constitution that gives it "general administrative authority over all courts in this state."
King's move was seen by many as a direct threat to the independence of the judicial branch because it meant the Legislature would take away all funding for the courts if the courts overturned a policy change lawmakers wanted.
King, however, denied at the time that he was trying to defund the courts, and he repeated that denial before the LCC on Friday.
"I was nervous in 2014 that the chief justice (Lawton Nuss) had announced that if the budget situation kept as it was going, the courts were going to shut for seven weeks," King said. "The governor had $13 million less in his judicial budget than we ended up passing in the Legislature. I couldn't get 21 votes in the Senate to add a dime to that. I found a way to do that. I wish it had been written differently. That's on me."
In March, the Supreme Court declared that current funding for public schools was inadequate and unconstitutional, and it ordered the Legislature to come up with a new funding formula, with adequate funding, before July 1.
King's role as an attorney for the Legislature will be to build a record of what the Legislature does and to document how those actions address the court's concerns.
He would not appear in oral arguments before the court when it reviews whatever new funding plan lawmakers come up with, but his report would be delivered to the attorney general's office and made part of the state's arguments before the court.
Both Ward and Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, however, said they worried King's relationship with the court, and in particular his relationship with Chief Justice Nuss, could be a liability in the case.
King admitted that his relationship with Nuss has been strained, but he said that would not affect the outcome of the case.
"I won't sugar-coat this, and I regret this. The chief justice and I used to be, I think it's fair to say, pretty good friends," King said. "That friendship no longer exists. I regret that. I wish it weren't the case."
"But I have a great deal of respect for the chief justice and the job that he does as chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court," he continued, "and I am 100 percent convinced that at no time and in no way would the chief justice of our Supreme Court ever allow his decision on a case to be influenced by the loss of a personal friendship of an attorney involved in the case."
Senate President Susan Wagle said in late March that she wanted to hire King to advise the Legislature, and the LCC was originally supposed to meet on Monday to approve the contract. But that meeting was abruptly canceled when House Republican Leader Don Hineman, R-Dighton, said he could not support the decision.
Hineman, however, said Friday that he had met with King and consequently changed his mind.
The LCC is a seven-member group made up of the top leaders from both parties in both chambers. It serves as a kind of executive committee for the Legislature as a whole. By law, it takes five votes on the panel to approve a contract to hire an outside attorney.
The vote to approve a contract with King split along party lines, with all five Republicans voting in favor and both Democrats voting against it.