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Tuesday, June 25, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Kansas Lege Files Rebuff to Gov. Brownback

TOPEKA, Kan. (CN) - Kansas lawmakers this week introduced two bills that would erase a bill that could have zeroed out funding for the state's courts if a judge ruled against a law backed by Gov. Sam Brownback - a law the Kansas Supreme Court already has declared unconstitutional.

The House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday introduced House Bill 2449, which would delete from an earlier bill a provision that removes the Kansas Supreme Court's power to elect the chief judge of each district and gives district court judges power to elect their own chief judges.

The Appropriations Committee was to discuss that bill Thursday.

The identically worded SB 320 was introduced in the Senate Judiciary Committee the same day and a hearing was scheduled for Wednesday.

The concurrent bills indicate lawmakers' eagerness to resolve a nearly two-year-old political squabble that threatened to eliminate the entire Kansas Judiciary budget.

The spat began in June 2014 when Brownback signed into law HB 2338, an appropriations bill, a few weeks after the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that the state had violated the Kansas Constitution by inadequately funding public schools.

HB 2338 removed the Kansas Supreme Court's authority to appoint a chief judge in each local court, known as district courts in Kansas, and allowed district court judges to elect the chiefs of their own districts.

Brownback's bill prompted Kansas District Judge Larry T. Solomon to sue the state in February 2015 in Shawnee County. Solomon called Brownback's bill an unconstitutional, "transparent attempt at judicial intimidation" that violated Kansas's separation-of-powers doctrine.

Undismayed, Brownback in July placed Kansas's entire judicial budget in jeopardy by signing HB 2005 , a budget bill that contained a non-severability clause tacked onto the end stipulating that the entire judiciary budget in the bill would be "null and void and shall have no force and effect," should any court strike down the section about selection of chief judges.

The Kansas Supreme Court in December struck down HB 2338 as unconstitutional.

The court was clear in its ruling: "Changing the selection process and encroaching on the court's administrative authority was an attempt to fragment judicial power."

Solomon's attorney Pedro Irigonegaray told Courthouse News Wednesday: "The Republican leadership has recognized the mistake they made and through [introducing the bills] are correcting the constitutional crisis they created.

This entire constitutional crisis was purposely created for political gain, which backfired when we filed this lawsuit."

In a closely related case in Shawnee County, Irigonegaray represents Robert Fairchild, chief judge of the Seventh Judicial District in Douglas County, and three other chief judges who sued the state in September.

They seek declaratory judgment that the non-severability clause of HB 2005 is unconstitutional and unenforceable.

Passage of HB 2449 or SB 320 would remove the non-severability clause in HB 2338.

Irigonegaray , who represented Solomon and the Fairchild plaintiffs pro bono, said the state is wasting taxpayer money by hiring a private attorney to defend the Fairchild lawsuit, which he calls a "fairly unnecessary case."

"How many tax dollars has the state spent to defend this case?" Irigonegaray asked. "They shouldn't simply create a constitutional crisis that costs thousands of dollars to the state and act as if nothing happened. There has to be some degree of accountability."

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