Thursday, December 18, 2014

HAWVER: Senate change would dilute court’s power

By MARTIN HAWVER, At the Rail | 3/11/2014

The Kansas Senate voted last week to make a courthouse-shaking, or maybe a ground-shaking, change in the way our courts are run, bringing a new level of power politics to the obscure culture of justice in Kansas.

The change? Allowing the chief judges of the state’s 31 judicial districts to opt to single-handedly allocate the budget of that judicial district in which the chief judge — now generally agreed to by consensus of the local judges and often rubber-stamped by the Chief Justice of the Kansas Supreme Court — sits.

Oh, and did we mention that another portion of the bill lets district court judges and judges of the Kansas Court of Appeals elect their own leaders?

There are many moving parts to that legislation, which is anchored by fully funding the Judicial Branch budget for the year that starts July 1 and which avoids what has been predicted to be as many as seven weeks of furloughs of non-judge employees of the state’s district courts.

That full-funding is the bright spot in the bill, solves a major problem, not just for the courts, but for the Legislature and for the businesses and law enforcement agencies that like the certainty of knowing that the courts are up and running.

Nothing is firm yet, but chances are decent the House will buy into the Senate product.

Now, let’s see ... if the chief judge of a judicial district — and those range from single-county districts with more than 30 judges to small multicounty districts with just two judges — controls the local budget ... that’s a big deal.

Oh, and yes, we’re figuring that a district court judge can campaign for the chief judgeship with budget promises to other judges, along with the typical promises to move a judge who has been assigned — sentenced? — to hear just traffic or divorce cases.

That budget authority? It also means shuffling who gets the court reporters and administrative assistants and what non-judge employees are paid and probably who gets the new office chair.

We will see some political power shifts within courthouses that Republicans in the Senate want — nicely decorated in a bill that touts full funding for the court system.

There’s no better way for anyone to climb to power than to control the budget — it works in the Legislature, and it probably works in your home, too.

And the bill also, by letting district court judges just send a “we’ll take care of the budget here” note to Topeka, removes a lot of top-down authority of the Kansas Supreme Court, which the governor and an apparent majority of the Legislature find unseemly.

Pretty subtle way to chip away at the power of the Supreme Court? Seems like to some, diluting the top-down authority of the Supreme Court and its chief justice.

We’ll have to see where this one goes.

Martin Hawver is publisher of Hawver’s Capitol Report. Visit his Web site at www.hawvernews.com

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