TOPEKA — The state’s longest-serving chief district court judge tangled Friday with attorneys representing Kansas in the constitutional challenge of a 2014 law reallocating the judicial branch’s power to select chief judges in 31 judicial districts.
District Court Judge Larry Solomon filed a lawsuit in February contesting action by the Legislature and Gov. Sam Brownback to redirect the Kansas Supreme Court’s authority to pick chief judges. Lawmakers decided the duty should be handled through direct election by judges working in each district, but Solomon contends the reform violated the Kansas Constitution.
State legislators and Brownback felt so passionately about modifying the chief judge appointment process that they adopted in 2015 a measure voiding the state court system’s budget if the judge-selection policy were to be ruled unconstitutional.
Topeka attorney Pedro Irigonegaray sought during oral arguments in Shawnee County District Court a summary judgment in favor of Solomon, which would serve to strike down law viewed by the plaintiff as in conflict with the separation of powers doctrine.
Irigonegaray argued Kansas’ chief judges in each district served as important surrogates of the state Supreme Court.
“There could hardly be, your honor, a more significant encroachment on the court’s administrative prerogatives than an enactment destroying that relationship,” Irigonegaray said.
Irigonegaray said lawmakers voting for these judicial reforms were engaged in an irresponsible crusade for political power.
Kansas Solicitor General Stephen McAllister, requested the suit be dismissed because Solomon’s constitutional arguments didn’t hold water and the law had yet to inflict damage on the south-central Kansas chief judge in Kingman County.
The legislative branch didn’t pursue transformation of the system in a quest for self-aggrandizement, he said.
In addition, McAllister said, pragmatic exercise of power among the three branches was required for delivery of effective government.
He said the legislative branch routinely handed power to the executive and judicial branches, but retained limited influence in both.
“I don’t think the Kansas Constitution says, by and large, that there are hard and fast lines — that there can be no interaction between the branches or crossing over or sharing of power,” he said.
McAllister said 40 percent of states relied upon a decentralized approach to appointing chief judges. The federal system doesn’t give the U.S. Supreme Court a stranglehold on chief judge positions, he said.
“There’s no precedent there saying there’s an inherent separation of powers ... that the top court in the system must be able to choose every chief judge,” McAllister said.
In 1972, Kansans voted to amend the state constitution to bring unity to the judicial system by declaring the state Supreme Court had “general administrative authority over all courts in the state.”
Shawnee County District Court Judge Larry Hendricks said he would rule in the “very near future” on the pending requests by Irigonegaray and McAllister.
“Obviously,” he said, “I have a lot of things to consider.”
Political considerations factor into Solomon’s suit because lawmakers overhauled the chief-judge selection mechansim after the state Supreme Court found against the state in a public education funding case. Justices ordered lawmakers to address school funding gaps — an edict unpopular among some members of the Republican-led House and Senate.
In 2014, the Legislature and Brownback agreed to deflate the high court’s authority over selection of local chief judges as well as control of local court budgets.
The follow-up measure in 2015 made all funding for the judicial branch in the next two years “null and void” if Solomon were to win his case.
Irigonegaray said the “tyrannical” provision regarding the judicial branch’s budget was crafted by lawmakers blinded to damage that could be inflicted through dilution of an independent judiciary.
In closing remarks, McAllister said an argument offered by Irigonegaray that centralization of decisions about appointment of chief judges advanced the cause of an independent judiciary sounded “a bit ominous.”
The challenge of the statute by Solomon, who has been a chief judge in the 30th Judicial District since 1991, drew the support of attorneys with the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute in New York City.