WICHITA, Kansas — The Kansas Supreme Court on Wednesday unanimously struck down a law meant to reduce its administrative influence over lower courts, setting up a showdown with lawmakers who threatened to defund the state’s entire judiciary system if the law was overturned.
The high court ruled that the 2014 law changing how chief judges are selected is unconstitutional and was an “unconstitutional encroachment” by the Legislature on the Supreme Court’s authority to administer a “unified” court system. The justices said that by enacting the law, the Legislature asserted significant control of a constitutionally established essential power of the Supreme Court.
The law enacted last year by the Republican-dominated Legislature stripped the Supreme Court of its power to appoint the chief judges for the trial courts in each of the state’s 31 judicial districts, giving it to the local judges.
Lawmakers followed up this year by passing another law this year saying that if the administrative change was overturned, the court system’s entire budget through June 2017 would be defunded, although it’s not due to take effect until March 15. That would give the Legislature an opportunity to rethink during the next session whether they want to actually defund the judiciary.
The justices wrote that the potential loss of funding did not factor into their ruling.
“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 justices wrote.
Critics of the 2014 law view it as an attack on the court system’s independence and accuse the Republican-dominated Legislature and GOP Gov. Sam Brownback of trying to intimidate the judiciary into accepting it through the budgeting process. Brownback and other supporters of the change argue that it would allow an important decision to be made locally.
The state’s high court has been under increasing attacks by conservatives who say it is too liberal, particularly with major cases on school funding and abortion restrictions now pending in the courts. In judicial races last year, the governor openly campaigned against the retention of two state Supreme Court justices.
District Judge Larry Solomon, of Kingman County, challenged the 2014 law stripping the court of its power to select chief judges. His attorney, Pedro Irigonegaray, said Wednesday that the separation of powers doctrine is an essential component of this country’s democratic way of life.
“The power grab attempted by the legislature and the government in trying to control our judges has failed and as a result the people of Kansas have won,” Irigonegaray said.
Neither the attorney general’s office nor the governor’s office immediately responded to emails seeking comment.