Victory for Judicial Independence in Kansas

January 29, 2016

Topeka, Kansas – In a victory for judicial independence, Kansas lawmakers passed a measure Thursday to reverse effects of a 2015 law that threatened to defund the state’s entire judiciary. Fair courts advocates spent months fighting the law, and another intertwined provision, both of which they say violated Kansas’s constitution.

The law the bill would reverse, HB 2005, was signed by Gov. Sam Brownback (R) last year. HB 2005 stipulated that the entire Kansas court system would lose funding if any court struck down language in another bill from 2014.

Four district judges filed suit, alleging the defunding provision violated the state’s constitution by significantly interfering with the judicial branch’s authority to hear and decide cases. They also argued that it violated the separation of powers doctrine.

“This is a tremendous victory for judicial independence in Kansas,” said Matthew Menendez, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. “But, it’s still appalling the executive branch thought it was acceptable to tie court funding to a judicial outcome in the first place. We’ve got to make sure the attitudes that led us here don’t prevail again.”

“This bill is critical for the people of Kansas. An independent, functioning judiciary is the cornerstone of democracy, and the defunding law needed to be remedied quickly,” said Pedro Irigonegaray of Irigonegaray & Associates, a Kansas lawyer representing the judges. “Governor Brownback must sign this bill for the sake of all Kansans.”

“The Kansas legislature essentially used the judicial budget as a bargaining chip,” said Michael Blechman of Kaye Scholer LLP. “Thankfully, lawmakers saw the error of their ways and moved fast to fix this in 2016.”

The Brennan Center for Justice, Kaye Scholer LLP, and Irigonegaray & Associates represented Hon. Robert Fairchild, Chief Judge of the 7th Judicial District in Kansas; Hon. Jeffry Jack, district court judge of the 11th Judicial District in Kansas; Judge Larry Solomon, Chief Judge of the 30th Judicial District in Kansas; and Hon. Meryl Wilson, Chief Judge of the 21st Judicial District in Kansas. If Brownback signs the bill restoring judicial funding, the case, Fairchild v. Kansas, will be moot.

The same legal team successfully represented Judge Solomon last year in Solomon v. Kansas, the lawsuit over the 2014 bill (HB 2338). That measure aimed to change the selection mechanism for chief district judges and strip the state supreme court of its administrative authority over district courts. The Kansas Supreme Court found it unconstitutional late last year.