When the Kansas Supreme Court convenes Monday night in Colby, the justices hope people will walk away with a better understanding of who they are and what they do.
Monday night will mark the eighth time the court has met for an evening session and the 14th community it has traveled to since 2011.
It’s all part of the court’s effort to become more accessible to the public, something started by Chief Justice Lawton Nuss.
“When I was a lawyer 20 or 25 years ago, I always appreciated the fact the Court of Appeals in Kansas would come to the community to hear cases argued,” he said.
Nuss practiced law in his hometown of Salina. He was appointed to the Supreme Court by Gov. Bill Graves in 2002 and became chief justice in 2010. A U.S. Marine veteran, he was made an honorary member of the Edwin A. Schumacher Detachment of the Marine Corps League in Hays in September 2016.
The goal of the special sessions is to help the public understand the justices aren’t just mysterious figures handing down decisions from Topeka, Nuss said.
“We wanted people to see firsthand who we were and what we did and how did it. In our view, it’s been a resounding success,” he said.
Justice Marla Luckert, a Goodland native, agreed. She was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2003 after serving as chief judge of the 3rd Judicial District for three years.
She said she became interested in a law career after reading Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” during the Civil Rights era and hearing Judge Jack Burr speak to one of her classes at Goodland High School. Burr, now a senior judge, will serve as honorary bailiff at the special session in Colby.
Holding court in different communities has helped dispel misconceptions about the court, they said.
Most people’s perceptions of the court come from television or movies, or, if from personal experience, at the trial court level, Nuss said.
People are surprised to find at the appellate court level there are no witnesses on the stand, no jury, no evidence introduced, he said.
“It’s a pretty intellectual exercise, and people said they just weren’t expecting that,” Nuss said.
The role of the justices is also misunderstood, Luckert said.
“As we talk to people, we find that often they think that we vote as if we were a legislator in terms of whether we like a law or don’t like a law, our personal beliefs coming through,” she said.
“Sometimes we enforce laws that, as a person, I just don’t agree with at all. I can’t veto the Legislature. My job is to enforce that law and to determine what the intent of the Legislature was in doing that, not to interject my own intent into that process. That’s probably the biggest thing that people don’t understand,” she said.
“They get a better understanding that we are obligated to follow the law and to follow the Constitution, and we’re not just sitting on the bench making decisions based upon our personal philosophies,” Nuss said.
The justices also hope to let people see that, underneath the black robes, they are just like everyone else. To that end, they meet with the public in a reception after the hearings.
“Afterwards, we’ll shake their hands and visit with them,” Nuss said, “and they’ll find out, for example, that Justice Luckert is from Goodland, that I’m from Salina, that Justice Lee Johnson is from a small town on the Oklahoma border. We’re all native Kansans, the seven justices,” Nuss said.
“People are surprised to learn that we’re regular human beings,” he said.