TOPEKA — The House GOP’s campaign operation wants Kansans to call the state Supreme Court ahead of a special legislative session on school finance — an unusual attempt to exhort the public to lobby justices.
In a message released Wednesday, the Kansas House Republican Campaign Committee implies the Supreme Court is about to close schools. Citizens are urged to call the court and ask it “to put our kids first.”
Groups and committees try to rally the public to pressure lawmakers and the governor on a regular basis. But the strategy is seldom deployed against the judicial branch.
“Tell the Supreme Court to stop its extreme action. Keep our schools open. It’s the law,” the billboard-style ad reads. It includes a phone number for the court.
Lawmakers will return June 23 to the Statehouse to respond to a Supreme Court ruling that found legislation passed this spring doesn’t provide equitable funding between rich and poor districts. Justices have set a June 30 deadline for lawmakers to enact an equitable system.
School districts have begun preparing for the possibility the court will halt the current funding system — which it has ruled unconstitutional — on July 1 should the Legislature fail to pass a fix. Without funds, many districts soon would shut down.
Yet the court could take other actions, such as allowing an order from a lower court that would boost school funding to go into effect or giving the Legislature more time.
Last week, Attorney General Derek Schmidt formally asked the court to take the option of closing schools off the table. The new ad from the House GOP conveys a similar, but more politically aggressive, message.
“You’re right that it’s unusual to see ‘call your local Supreme Court justice,’ but it’s also unusual for Supreme Court justices to act as lawmakers, and blatantly ignore the law already in effect that prevents any judge from shutting down schools,” said Rachel Whitten, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Ray Merrick. “Kansans have the right to be in contact with their government officials in all three branches of government.”
Rep. John Carmichael, a lawyer and the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said whoever designed the ad needs to take a civics class. The court, he said, should not be influenced by public opinion, telephone calls or political advertising.
“It’s entirely appropriate to call elected officials to try to influence their decisions in making legislation,” Carmichael said, adding the governor also is regularly approached by citizens. “When we talk about the courts, it’s an entirely different set of rules, and that’s because the courts’ allegiance is to the law.”
Lisa Taylor, spokeswoman for the Supreme Court, said the court had received nine phone calls, all supportive of the court. She said calls are occasionally received about cases, but the comments aren’t passed along to justices.
The Kansas code of judicial conduct prohibits judges from being swayed by “public clamor or fear of criticism.”
The “extreme action” referenced by the message, released on social media, includes threatening to shut down schools despite a prohibition in state law, Whitten said. While state law prohibits the closure of schools, the state constitution requires lawmakers to provide adequate and equitable funding.
Some lawmakers believe justices would find the statute unconstitutional in light of the constitutional requirement.
Whitten said the Supreme Court is holding children, teachers and districts “hostage” over less than 1 percent of school funding. The 1 percent stems from a $38 million figure, the additional equity funding many believe would satisfy the court.
Democrats and other critics of the Legislature have said the portion of the school funding system the court has found unconstitutional accounts for approximately one-fourth of education spending.
Whitten also listed “allowing horrific abortions to continue at this moment” and “taking the side of murderers like the Carr brothers time after time after time” as among the extreme actions taken by the court.