Mediators, court date set for Kansas school case
By JOHN MILBURN
TOPEKA -- Attorneys involved in a Kansas school finance lawsuit on Monday announced they had picked the dean of Pepperdine University's law school and a Topeka attorney to serve as mediators to settle the case.
The attorneys told Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton Nuss that law school dean Deanell Tacha and Topeka attorney James Steven Pigg will mediate the case. Tacha is the former chief judge of the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. Nuss had given the parties until last Friday to agree on a mediator to assist in brokering a settlement.
Nuss also announced that the court would hear the appeal of a lower-court ruling on the case on Oct. 8 in Topeka. Each side will have on hour to present arguments in the case.
"My guess is we'll have more than one or two spectators in the gallery," Nuss said.
No time was given for a ruling, but it is likely the decision could come during the 2014 legislative session.
The state is appealing a January ruling by a three-judge panel in Shawnee County that legislators must increase the state's annual spending on schools by at least $440 million.
The lawsuit was filed in November 2010 by the parents and guardians of 32 students and the Wichita, Hutchinson, Dodge City and Kansas City, Kan., school districts, after the state backed off from previous promises on its education funding. The state is the only defendant.
Gov. Sam Brownback and Attorney General Derek Schmidt, both Republicans, sought the mediation, saying they wanted to see whether the parties could resolve the case out of court.
Nuss said the court would contact Tacha and Pigg to inform them that they had been approved to serve as mediators. A date for the start of settlement talks wasn't set. The chief justice suggested that it would helpful for the state to have representatives in the room whom would be authorized to approve any deal that is struck.
Arthur Chalmers, a Wichita attorney hired to defend the state in the case, said House Speaker Ray Merrick and Senate President Susan Wagle have indicated that they wouldn't be present at mediation at the start, but Brownback's chief of staff Landon Fulmer and representatives from the attorney general's office would be at the table.
Attorneys for the school districts and parents said having people at mediation who are authorized to approve a settlement was necessary.
"If the matter's going to be resolved, it's not going to be resolved unless we have those people at the table," said Alan Rupe, attorney for the plaintiffs, who suggested Nuss consider issuing an order compelling legislative leaders to attend.
"I'll give that some thought," Nuss said.
Last week, Democratic leaders in the Legislature said they would be filing a request with the court to be a part of the mediation process.
The court also has ordered both sides to begin filing briefs with the court to continue the march toward the October court hearing if mediation fails. Nuss said no motions from attorneys to extend the time for filing the documents or seeking a continuance for the October hearing would be granted.
Nuss said Monday's conference call was the first of its kind in a case of this magnitude to allow members of the media to listen to the conversation. A handful of media outlets, including The Associated Press, listened to the discussion but weren't allowed to ask questions.