Saturday, April 7, 2012

Speaker of Kansas House, Supreme Court chief justice disagree on furloughs

— House Speaker Mike O’Neal on Friday said the state judicial system shouldn’t shut down for five days, but instead should use a reserve of attorney fees until the Legislature approves a budget.

But Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton Nuss said that would be unfair.

“If we’re going to be intellectually honest about it, then someone should go to our firefighters and say you got to pay for your own fire trucks because you’re the only ones who drive them,” Nuss said.

“And you should go to our police officers and say the same thing. You’re the only ones who drive your patrol vehicles and you’re the only people we know who actually put people in the jails, so you should pay for your own vehicles and your jails,” he said.

Nuss said that wouldn’t be fair because the courts are open for all Kansans and not just for the benefit of attorneys.

Earlier this week, Nuss announced he will order five court closure dates because the House and Senate last week failed to approve a supplemental budget that included $1.4 million needed by the judicial system to make payroll through June 30, the end of the fiscal year.

An agreement on the budget seemed imminent and then unraveled at the last minute before legislators went on their annual break.

The furloughs would affect 1,500 workers and start next Friday, April 13, and occur every other Friday after that for a total of five days.

O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, however, said the court could tap into reserves of other funds until the Legislature approves a budget when the 2012 session reconvenes April 25.

In a news release, O’Neal said a specific fund available is called the Bar Discipline Fee Fund.

“The Supreme Court has the authority to use the Bar Discipline Fee Fund as they deem appropriate,” O’Neal said. “It is disappointing to me that the court would furlough employees rather than take advantage of the estimated $3 million currently at their disposal in this fund.”

He said state statutes give the Kansas Supreme Court ultimate authority on how to use that fund.

The Bar Discipline Fee Fund is made up of an annual registration fee of $175 paid by every Kansas attorney.

Nuss said the fund is used to pay for the Office of the Disciplinary Administrator, which reviews and investigates complaints against attorneys. The office annually reviews about 1,000 complaints.

It also funds a program that reimburses clients for problems caused by the dishonest conduct of Kansas attorneys. Another program funded by the Bar Discipline Fee Fund is one that assists lawyers who are experiencing personal difficulties that are harming their practice.

“It is not available for ongoing judicial branch operations,” Nuss said.

Earlier this year, the House Appropriations Committee considered using the Bar Discipline Fee to cover the judiciary shortfall, which has been caused by lower-than-expected case filings.

Martha Coffman, general counsel for the Office of Judicial Administration, however, said there were several problems with that plan.

In a memo to committee members, Coffman said, “legislative taking of attorney registration fees assessed by the Supreme Court per its constitutional authority may very well violate the separation of powers doctrine contained in the Kansas Constitution.”

She also said the costs of the judicial branch should be shared by all Kansans.

“The cost of administering justice for 2.85 million Kansans should not be borne by 10,800 attorneys who comprise 0.0038 of the population,” she said.