Nuss says he regrets meeting

In filing on lawmaker lunch, judge apologizes for 'lapse in judgment'

No harm, no foul.

That was Kansas Supreme Court Justice Lawton Nuss’ defense Thursday for speaking with two lawmakers about school finance – then and now a pending matter before the court.

Nuss apologized for “this lapse in judgment” and acknowledged that the conversation could be seen as a violation of judicial standards.

But Nuss, through a filing with the state’s judicial disciplinary board, said he did not intentionally violate the Canons of Judicial Conduct and that no harm occurred from the meeting.

“His brief and public conversation with two Kansas state senators had neither the purpose nor the effect of influencing the Legislature, nor was Justice Nuss influenced by that conversation,” the five-page filing stated.

Lunch meeting

Nuss has been accused of violating several canons. The accusations stem from a March 1 lunch at a Topeka restaurant with Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, and Sen. Pete Brungardt, R-Salina.

At the meeting, Nuss discussed proposed legislation relating to the school finance lawsuit, the most high-profile case before the court. Judges are prohibited from talking privately with interested parties in pending litigation.

In April, Nuss disclosed the conversation when it became apparent it would be publicized and then removed himself from further court decisions in the case.

Last month, the Commission on Judicial Qualifications opened a formal hearing on the incident – the first ever against a state Supreme Court justice.

Judicial qualifications hearing examiner Edward Collister Jr., a Lawrence attorney, alleged Nuss violated several canons of judicial conduct.

Thursday’s filing was Nuss’ response, and the most detailed statement from him yet on the incident. The Commission on Judicial Qualifications has not set a hearing date.

The commission would recommend to the state Supreme Court what disciplinary action, if any, should be taken. The Supreme Court could censure Nuss or suspend him. Under the Kansas Constitution, a justice can be removed only if the House impeaches him and two-thirds of the Senate votes to convict.

Sought information

In the response to the commission, Nuss’ attorney, J. Nick Badgerow of Overland Park, said Nuss and Brungardt had arranged to have lunch to see if there were ways to promote better relations between the court and the Legislature.

The court has declared the school finance system unconstitutional because it shortchanges all students, especially those from low-income areas. Last year, after a brutal special session, the Legislature pumped $290 million into schools; this year it has approved a $466 million increase over three years.

The court on June 22 will hear arguments on whether the new funding plan is constitutional.

At the lunch, Nuss said he asked Brungardt and Morris about a proposed House bill to determine if a newspaper report about the funding levels was accurate. That House bill was not approved.

His statement about the lunch generally follows the accounts given by Morris and Brungardt. Nuss said he inquired about the funding plan because he wanted to be prepared to address an expedited appeal in the case.

“In that single conversation, Justice Nuss did not discuss the court’s views, nor even his own views, regarding the substance of legislation necessary to satisfy the court’s earlier ruling (in the case),” the filing stated. “Justice Nuss sincerely regrets the occurrence and is remorseful that it occurred.”

Some discrepancies

But critics of Nuss’ action were not persuaded he answered all the questions surrounding the lunch.

House Speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka, who ordered a House investigation into the matter, said the probe would go on.

“We really haven’t heard from everyone yet,” Mays said. “There seems to be inconsistencies.”

Sen. Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler, agreed.

He noted that Morris has stated that Nuss said during lunch that a bipartisan school funding plan was preferred. But in his response to the commission, Nuss denied saying that.

And Huelskamp said he was concerned to learn that the response stated that Nuss’ monitoring of the House bill was consistent with the court staff’s practice of providing written reports to justices regarding proposed school finance bills during the 2005 session.

Huelskamp said the court should only concern itself with the Legislature’s final product.

“What it really suggests is that there are more irregularities,” he said.

Sen. Jim Barnett, R-Emporia, who is running for the GOP nomination for governor, said the denial by Nuss of Morris’ comment that he had said the court wanted a bipartisan funding plan was an important contradiction.

“This involves billions of taxpayer dollars, hundreds of thousand of Kansas children, and contradictory stories from the justice and Senate president indicate the need for an investigation,” he said.