TOPEKA — The Kansas Supreme Court’s chief justice warned state legislators Wednesday below-market salaries of judicial branch employees that fueled high staff turnover and diminished applicant pools were detrimental to administration of justice in the state.
Chief Justice Lawton Nuss, speaking to House and Senate members at the Capitol, expressed gratitude for approval in the 2017 session of a 2.5-percent salary boost for judiciary employees. He acknowledged stark budget choices facing the 2018 Legislature, which include response from legislators to a Supreme Court decision that K-12 school funding was unconstitutionally inadequate.
“I am well aware you are still facing many challenges during this legislative session. Maybe some of the biggest ones ever,” Nuss said. “If things continue on this financial path in the judicial branch, there are serious concerns about our ability to administer the quality of justice that Kansans have come to expect and deserve.”
Despite authorization of a raise for judicial branch employees, Nuss said, nearly one-third of employees in the system had starting salaries below the federal poverty level for a family of four.
“Nearly one-third of our employees also need to work jobs outside the judicial branch to make ends meet. This is five times higher than the Kansas average,” Nuss said.
Every Kansas judicial branch job classification is below market rate, he said. Salaries of district magistrate judges are 21 percent below the standard wage. The state’s district trial judges rank next to last in the nation in salary with only New Mexico lower, he said.
The state’s judicial system includes 260 judges and 1,600 employees in the 105 counties. In the fiscal year ending last June, the state’s district courts processed 400,000 new cases. The caseload expanded by 20,000 felony cases and 14,000 misdemeanor cases.
In addition to supervising convicted criminals on probation, the judicial branch worked to protect the safety of 7,000 children determined to be in need of care.
Nuss said shortage of suitable court staff ought to compel the Legislature to consider the feasibility of maintaining a Kansas law requiring at least one judge in each county.
He also said the judicial branch formed a committee, including Dodge City Rep. Brad Ralph, to review bonding practices, fines and fees of more than 300 municipal courts operating in Kansas. The assessment was inspired by problems with the municipal court in Ferguson, Mo.
The chief justice told legislators an electronic filing system was now operational in state courts in every county and the two appellate courts sitting in Topeka. The project was financed by the 2014 Legislature’s earmarking of docket fees to the transition.
“By June, no state court will any longer accept paper filings by attorneys,” Nuss said.
He said the judicial branch signed an $11.5 million contract with Tyler Technologies of Plano, Texas, for development of the so-called eCourt system. It will provide the public with 24-hour access to frequently requested court information from any computer with an internet connection, he said.