Kansas Supreme Court dismisses lawsuit over judicial funding

Topeka — Kansas’ high court on Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit over funding for the state’s court system filed by six trial-court judges against the Republican-controlled Legislature.

The state Supreme Court said in a short order signed by Chief Justice Marla Luckert that it’s “confident” that allegations of underfunding the court system are best handled through “cooperation” with the state’s legislative and executive branches.

“Accordingly, we are mindful of the good-faith, civil commitments we must necessarily make not to encroach on the Legislature’s budget-making province, within constitutional boundaries,” the order said.

The lawsuit threatened to complicate an often tense relationship between the courts and the Legislature. It came after a ruling from the Supreme Court last year protecting abortion rights, years of legal battles over funding for the state’s public schools and multiple rulings forcing lawmakers to boost education funding.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., an Olathe Republican, said the decision to dismiss the lawsuit signaled “a good day for Kansas.”

“I appreciate the court’s recognition of separation of powers and their renewed commitment to open communication,” Ryckman said in a statement.

Attorneys for the judges who sued did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.

The lawsuit was filed directly with the Supreme Court and alleged that state lawmakers have chronically underfinanced the judicial branch. It asked the court to force legislators to consider funding “independent of unrelated political agendas.”

Legislators last year approved a $149 million annual budget for the court system, but the Supreme Court is pushing for an increase of $18 million, or 12%, mostly to boost salaries.

Luckert herself said in an interview last month that the increase would be only the “tip of the iceberg” in meeting the judiciary’s needs.

But the Supreme Court said in its order that the need to balance protecting the court system’s independence with lawmakers’ “power to control the purse” would result in complex litigation that would “likely take significant time to resolve.” Allowing the lawsuit to continue would hinder work with legislators to finance the judiciary, the order said.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican, said in a statement: “The court should no more decide the size of its own budget than the Legislature should decide the constitutionality of the laws it enacts.”

The district judges suing the Legislature included Robert Frederick of Finney County in southwest Kansas; Steven Hornbaker of Geary County in northeast Kansas; Michael Powers in Marion County in central Kansas; and Merlin Wheeler of Lyon County in eastern Kansas. Frederick, Powers and Wheeler are the chief administrative judges in their judicial districts.

Two other judges joined them, identified only as John Doe #1 and John Doe #2. Also joining them was an administrative assistant identified only as Jane Doe #1.


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