Kansas Chief Justice Lawton R. Nuss Thursday suggested legislators create and fund 22 new judicial positions as an alternative to repealing a statute that mandates at least one judge be located in each of the state’s 105 counties and essentially prevents the Judicial Branch from transferring some of those judges to where they are most needed.
The proposal was contained in the chief justice’s 2013 State of the Judiciary Report, which was delivered to legislators in writing Thursday afternoon.
“For fiscal year 2014, the Supreme Court proposes that rather than eliminating these statutory restrictions on judge transfers, the Legislature instead can create and fund the 22 judicial positions and accompanying staff needed to meet judicial needs in the underserved areas identified by the weighted caseload study,” (a historic exhaustive analysis of the state’s judicial caseload led by the National Center for State Courts). “If the Legislature chooses not to do so, however, then these statutory restrictions should be removed,” Chief Justice Nuss wrote in the annual report.
He noted that the extensive weighted caseload study revealed that “while Kansas has enough judges, some are not placed where they are most needed. That is partially due to a 30-year-old statute that absolutely requires at least one judge to reside in, and have principal office in, each county—regardless of the existing demands of the legal market there,” Chief Justice Nuss wrote in the report.
The weighted caseload study was part of a statewide review of Judicial Branch operations that included a 24-member Blue Ribbon Commission, composed of citizens “from a variety of backgrounds and leadership positions from across the state.”
Thursday’s State of the Judiciary message outlined progress made the last twelve months in implementing the commission’s recommendations in 11 main categories, which include the development of statewide electronic filing (e-filing) of court cases. Nuss said current e-filing funding through the end of this fiscal year, including legislative appropriations and federal grants, will cover the two appellate courts and the district court in Shawnee County as well as pilot projects in Douglas, Leavenworth, and Sedgwick county district courts.
“Additional legislative funding [from the State General Fund] is being sought for fiscal year 2014 to allow full statewide implementation of EFS (e-filing system) by the end of calendar year 2015,” Chief Justice Nuss wrote.
He said the Supreme Court ultimately intends to develop and implement a complete centralized statewide e-courts environment—EFS plus electronic case management systems (CMS) and document management systems (DMS).
“Upon completion, such a combination of statewide systems could allow court personnel in any location to work virtually on court business in any other location, once again allowing the Supreme Court to more effectively and efficiently manage the state’s court system. Properly used, such statewide systems could help us to keep a functioning ‘open for business’ court clerk’s office in all 105 counties.
“It might be suggested that these electronic systems are absolutely critical to keeping some of these offices open, and further suggested that keeping these offices open is absolutely critical to providing access to justice for our fellow Kansans living in those areas,” Chief Justice Nuss wrote.
In his report’s conclusion, Chief Justice Nuss observed that “Several themes have been emphasized recently in the state to set the course for the conduct of Kansas government. First, government should become more efficient, but still provide essential or core services to the people we all serve. Second, government should promote economic growth of existing businesses and those that Kansas hopes to attract to our state.” He pointed out that the Kansas Judicial Branch is doing all of these.
Looking at these themes, Nuss noted increased efficiencies and the growing application of sound business management principles in the Judicial Branch. As for providing essential services, the Chief Justice wrote, “administering justice to all Kansans has been an original function of government performed by the Judicial Branch since 1861. Indeed, since 1861 the Kansas Constitution Bill of Rights has provided that Kansans are entitled to ‘remedy by due course of law’ and [civil] ‘justice administered without delay.’ ”
“Adequate court funding is critical to providing these essential services—while inadequate funding undermines not only access to justice, but also the people’s belief in the justice system itself,” the chief justice wrote.
The chief justice concluded that if promoting economic growth is now the set course for Kansas government, “then the Kansas Judicial Branch should be recognized as a vital factor in that formula for success.” He emphasized that Kansas courts have been deciding business disputes since 1861.
Nuss further observed that the excellence of the Kansas courts was acknowledged in a 2012 business survey by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He pointed out the survey ranked our courts “fifth among the states in the overall ranking of state liability systems.” The chamber declared these rankings were important to the business community because “a state’s litigation environment is likely to impact important business decisions . . . such as where to locate or do business.”