Power Struggle in Kansas Could Shut Down State Court System

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on September 10, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Kansas may be without a state court system soon, if the governor and legislature get their way. The courts face a total loss of funding after a judge struck down a change to the way chief judges were selected. In an attempt to prevent that ruling, the state legislature passed budget legislation in June that would make the court's budget "null and void" should the law be invalidated.

Besides just selecting new chief judges, Kansas court's system is also responsible for simple things like conducting criminal trials, granting divorces, and probating wills -- services that might be harder to provide should all funding disappear.

A Judicial Self Destruct Button

The kerfuffle began after Kansas Governor Sam Brownback and the state's Republican-controlled legislature passed a law in 2014 changing the way chief justices were selected. Under Kansas's system, the state's more liberal state Supreme Court selects chief judges. The law shifted that power to local courts, along with giving them more control over funding. That law was followed by a bill declaring that if the new selection policy was invalidated by the courts, the Kansas court system's budget would disappear -- a so-called "blow-up clause."

And so here we are. Last week, state judge Larry Hendricks struck down the selection law, saying that it interfered with the administrative authority granted to the state Supreme Court by the Kansas constitution. That ruling, though stayed pending appeal, could "effectively and immediately shut off all funding for the judicial branch," according to the state's attorney general.

The fight between the courts, Governor Brownback, and the legislature goes deeper than just the selection of chief justices. Many view the attempt to disempower, and then defund, the Supreme Court as retribution for two state Supreme Court rulings that said Kansas's public school funding was unconstitutionally inadequate.

Taking It to Court, Again

Kansas judges haven't hung up their robes and taken an extended vacation just yet, however. State court doors remain open and there's no indication whether funding will be halted in the near future, though politicians acknowledge that is a serious possibility. In the mean time, several state judges are continuing to challenge the selection law and the blow-up clause. They argue that the law impermissibly interferes with the courts and attempts to prevent them from ruling impartially -- which seems to be the whole point of the law, after all.

Those trials could be complicated by state polticians' demands that Kansas judges recuse themselves from cases which could affect their judicial authority.

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