The headline on the press release from the governor’s office said, “Governor, legislative leaders announce support.” The first few words of the press release were, “Kansas leaders today announced support…”
In fact, all of those “legislative leaders” and “Kansas leaders” were Republicans. And what they announced support for is a constitutional amendment that, in effect, would ensure that if the Legislature again violates the constitutional rights of Kansas school children, the Kansas Supreme Court wouldn’t be allowed to step in and check the abuse.
That’s what happened in 2006, and Kansans should be glad the Supreme Court acted. In response to a lawsuit by Kansas school districts, the state Supreme Court unanimously upheld a Shawnee County District Court judge’s ruling that the Legislature underfunded public schools to the point that it deprived school children of the educational opportunities the state Constitution guarantees. And lest the Legislature ignore the justices, they ordered lawmakers to sharply increase funding.
The Legislature, dominated by Republicans who were more interested in cutting taxes than in adequately funding public schools, grudgingly complied. Lamentably, the ensuing funding gains that schools received were wiped out by the recession. Also lamentably, it seems that the Legislature, now even more heavily dominated by Republicans, learned the wrong lesson from that episode.
Rather than acknowledge their error, they seem committed to making sure the Supreme Court doesn’t interfere again, at least not when it comes to funding decisions. It isn’t much of a stretch to conclude that if legislators again make funding decisions that violate Kansans’ rights, they can do so with impunity.
Advocates of this proposed amendment want Kansans to believe it is the Supreme Court that overstepped its bounds, not the Legislature. It is no coincidence that the governor and legislative Republicans are pursuing this proposal now; another lawsuit filed by school districts that resembles the previous lawsuit is heading toward trial — and perhaps another review by the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court is not in the habit of interfering with legislative actions. Indeed, it takes extraordinary circumstances. The Legislature’s skewed priorities in the years leading to the initial school lawsuit constituted extraordinary circumstances.
If the courts were to meddle in legislative affairs, Kansans of every stripe would have reason to be concerned. Indeed, the judicial system, like the legislative and executive branches of government, exist in part to check one another’s abuses.
If legislative leaders don’t abuse their authority, they needn’t worry about whether the courts might step in on behalf of citizens lawmakers are sworn to serve.