Boost funding for Kansas courts

Half-measures won’t meet acute needs

By The Mercury

Kansas Senate Vice President Jeff King deserves some credit for introducing a handful of measures this week that can help ease the financial straits of the state’s judiciary.

But neither those nor some efficiency measures that Sen. King, an Independence Republican, suggests that the Kansas Supreme Court consider will have much impact on a funding shortfall that has become both chronic and increasingly acute.

Among Sen. King’s suggestions included in a letter to Chief Justice Lawton Nuss were that the Supreme Court consider expanding videoconferencing for routine criminal hearings and streamlining appeals of rulings from magistrates who aren’t lawyers. He also urged the Supreme Court to support modest increases in certain court fees.

Some of the suggestions were recommended by a panel the Supreme Court commissioned in 2012. They’re also part of a package that Sen. King, who served on that panel and is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has introduced as part of a package of bills for fellow legislators to consider.

Those ideas can help, but won’t likely do much to offset a projected $8.25 million shortfall in the judicial system in the next fiscal year. Funding woes in the judiciary are hardly new. In two of the last three years, courts statewide were closed temporarily and employees were furloughed because of a lack of funding. Also, positions went unfilled, adding to the burdens of remaining staff.

Chief Justice Nuss warned that unless the judicial system receives more money,  “Kansas court employees will be sent home without pay and Kansas courts statewide will be closed. The only question is for how long.”

Actually, the chief justice had another pertinent question, asking, “Isn’t four years of understaffing enough?”

The underfunding stems from a series of broad budget cuts and steep income-tax cuts that the Legislature has approved. Complicating matters with the judiciary is growing tension between it, the governor and the Legislature over education funding the Court has yet to rule on. The tension has reached the point that Gov. Sam Brownback, in his State of the State address, referred to the courts as “unaccountable, opaque institutions,” and some legislators have threatened to ignore a Supreme Court ruling that involves increasing education funding.

Chief Justice Nuss, who wisely sidestepped those issues, was right to focus on the court system’s very real funding needs. Those are needs that affect not just court employees but Kansans who have issues that need to be dealt with in civil and criminal court.

Those are needs the Legislature should responsibly address.

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