Dispute over Kansas judicial funding moves to federal court

(KSNT File photo)

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — A lawsuit stemming from the Legislature’s move to defund the Kansas judiciary’s budget over an administrative dispute has now landed in the federal courts.

A court notice shows Kansas has moved the lawsuit filed by four state judges challenging the measure to U.S. District Court in Topeka. The case is now before U.S. District Judge Daniel Crabtree.

The Republican-controlled Legislature stripped the justices of their ability to appoint chief district court judges in each of the state’s 31 judicial districts, transferring the power to the district judges instead. The Legislature sought earlier this year to preserve the change by enacting another law saying that if the first policy is invalided, the judicial branch’s entire budget through June 2017 is “null and void.”

Critics contend that both laws are an attack by the GOP-controlled Legislature and the state’s Republican governor on the judiciary’s independence, while supporters argue that they just want some key administrative decisions made locally.

Shawnee County District Judge Larry Hendricks struck down the 2014 law last month, calling it an unconstitutional interference. But he put his ruling on hold at the request of Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt. That temporarily ended the threat to the court system’s funding.

In a separate lawsuit, the four judges are challenging the constitutionality of the measure that the Legislature passed and Gov. Sam Brownback signed this year, which ties state court funding to the ruling over the appointment of chief judges. They contend that it amounts to the extortion of an independent branch of government.

“It is unconscionable, it is unconstitutional and it is against every principle of law that is applicable under these circumstances and for that reason,” said Pedro Irigonegaray, the attorney representing the judges said Monday. “I am confident a court — whether federal or state — will reach determination that this type of behavior cannot be tolerated in our democracy.”

No decision has been made yet on whether to oppose the state’s removal last Friday of the case to federal court, Irigonegaray said.

The manner in which the Legislature and governor altered the selection of chief judges was directly connected with their desire to take control of the courts, he said.

Irigonegaray called the state’s defense of the measure “futile and a wasteful expense of taxpayer money.”

The Kansas attorney general’s office said in an email that the case is being handled by an outside law firm due to a conflict of interest, and referred any questions to the private attorney in Wichita that it hired to handle the case, Bradley Schlozman.

The case was moved to federal court because the judges had raised federal due process claims, Schlozman said. He declined to talk about any of the issues surrounding what he called a “case as sensitive as this.”

“We are going to be preparing our pleadings and representing the state zealously,” Schlozman said.

Schlozman was formerly the acting head of the federal Justice Department’s civil rights division under the tenure of former Republican Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The department’s inspector general alleged in a 2009 report that Schlozman politicized the division, mistreating his staff and punishing agency employees he believed were too liberal. He resigned in 2007.

 

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

 

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