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Kansas High Court Settles Judicial Appointment Spat

TOPEKA, Kan. (CN) - The Kansas Supreme Court struck down a law Wednesday that blocks its power to select the chief judges of lower state courts.

HB 2338, an appropriations bill state lawmakers passed last year, removed the Kansas Supreme Court's authority to appoint a chief judge in each local court, known as district courts in the Sunflower State.

The new law meanwhile gave district court judges the power to elect the chief of their districts.

District Judge Larry Solomon took the issue to court with a lawsuit against the state in February, calling the law an unconstitutional and "transparent attempt at judicial intimidation."

Gov. Sam Brownback upped the ante in July by signing the budgeting bill, HB 2005, which stipulates that the entire judiciary budget outlined in that bill would be "null and void and shall have no force and effect," should any court strike down the chief-appointing law.

Brownback's threat held little concern for the state Supreme Court as it agreed Wednesday that a section of HB 2388 is unconstitutional.

"We note only that our holding appears to have practical adverse consequences to the judiciary budget, which the Legislature may wish to address, even though those concerns played no part in our analysis," the 28-page ruling states.

Changing the selection process and encroaching on the court's administrative authority was an attempt to fragment judicial power, the court found.

"The intervention by the Legislature in 2014 would result in removal from the Supreme Court of an essential component of its constitutionally mandated administrative authority," Judge Rosen wrote for the majority. "By taking the power to appoint chief judges away from the Supreme Court, the Legislature has exerted its power over a fundamental component of the judiciary."

Unlike previous legislation enacted in harmony with Supreme Court rules, the 2014 "statute directly conflicts with the mission of the Supreme Court in establishing an efficient and unified administrative structure for the courts," Rosen added.

"Courts in other jurisdictions have reached analogous conclusions about legislative interference with the administration of courts."

Pedro Irigonegary, the attorney representing Solomon, said the ruling represents a "great victory for the people of Kansas."

"Our Supreme Court correctly determined the importance of protecting the separation-of-powers doctrine and in so doing, stopped a power grab engineered by Sen. Jeff King and signed into law by Gov. Brownback," Irigonegary added.

In a closely related Shawnee District case, Irigonegaray also represents Robert Fairchild, chief judge of the Seventh Judicial District in Douglas County and three other chief judges who sued the state in September, seeking a declaratory judgment that the nonseverability clause of HB 2005 is unconstitutional and unenforceable.

Kansas lawmakers will decide on the enforcement of HB2005 when they return to Topeka for the 2016 legislative session in January.

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