Published on -8/7/2013, 9:27 AM
When the Kansas Legislature wrapped up its session at the end of May, many throughout the state were looking forward to seven months of silence from Topeka.
There was the off-chance the Kansas Supreme Court could rule on the adequacy of public education funding before January, which likely would have forced the governor to call lawmakers back to the Statehouse. A U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding the unconstitutionality of any Kris Kobach-authored voting law could have had the same result. Even more remote, but not outside the realm of possibilities, would have been yet another attempt to derail Common Core standards before the school year got underway.
But special sessions are a rarity in Kansas governance. Only 21 such gatherings have taken place since Kansas became a state in 1861 -- and extreme conditions presented themselves that required expeditious response from lawmakers.
Special sessions have been called to deal with grasshopper plagues, women gaining the right to vote, flooding, social unrest following a strike by coal miners, extending a moratorium on mortgage foreclosures in the Great Depression, joining the newly created Social Security program, legislative redistricting and other timely, weighty topics.
On Tuesday, Gov. Sam Brownback issued a proclamation ordering legislators back to Topeka on Sept. 3. The 22nd special session in state history is dedicated to rewriting the so-called "hard 50" criminal sentencing law. The current law allows judges to imprison particularly violent criminals to 50 years with no chance for parole. The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that only juries can impose such sentences, not judges by themselves.
With perhaps as many as two dozen cases that could be affected, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt asked the governor to convene the Legislature so the current law could be rewritten.
"The longer we wait to fix this problem, the greater the universe of cases that will be subject to that uncertainty," Schmidt said to the Rotary Club of Wichita recently.
"Every homicide that would otherwise be Hard 50 eligible that occurs in late September, in October, in November, in December, and at least the first half of January would be subject to that same uncertainty at a minimum and maybe not have the Hard 50 eligible," Schmidt said.
We appreciate the AG's concerns for public safety, but couldn't those defendants simply have jury trials? That way the public is protected -- and doesn't have to pony up $35,000 to $40,000 per day for the special session.
The emergency nature of the situation doesn't come close to the conditions that prompted the first 21 sessions, which makes us suspect other factors are in play.
While Brownback has asserted he wants a "one-bill special session," he can't impose such a restriction. And once the 125 representatives and 40 senators are in the same building, there's no telling what might emerge.
One additional action we know will take place is the confirmation of up to 19 pending gubernatorial appointments. The Senate is required once in session to consider Brownback's appointees for positions such as secretary of administration, a securities commissioner, three members of the Board of Regents as well as the newly created seat on the Kansas Court of Appeals. As the governor has until Aug. 29 to nominate that judge, legislators won't have months to evaluate the candidate that they would have without the special session.
We won't speculate on other actions the Legislature might take. We'll wait and see what happens.
But we won't hesitate to say this special session is not warranted.
Not only is it a waste of taxpayer dollars, it is an abuse of the powers given to the governor.
Editorial by Patrick Lowry