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Kan. chief justice seeks new flexibility for court

By John Hanna

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 18 2012 7:20 p.m. MST

Members of the Kansas Supreme Court listen in the House chamber as Chief Justice Lawton Nuss gives the State of the Judiciary address to a joint session of the Legislature, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. They are, left to right, Justices Lee Johnson, Eric Rosen, Carol Beier and Marla Luckert.

John Hanna, Associated Press

TOPEKA, Kan. — Chief Justice Lawton Nuss asked Kansas legislators Wednesday evening to give the state Supreme Court more flexibility in administering the judicial branch and endorsed repealing a law that requires each of the state's 105 counties to have at least one judge.

Nuss also asked legislators to finance projects that will allow court documents to be filed and stored electronically across the state and unify dozens of different judicial computer systems so that clerks in widely separated counties can help each other.

The proposals for improving the court system's technology, giving the Supreme Court more administrative flexibility and repealing the one-judge-per-county requirement were recommendations from a commission the justices created last year to study ways to make the judicial branch more efficient. Nuss used the annual State of the Judiciary address to make the commission's recommendations public.

The chief justice also repeatedly cited the State of the State address last week by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback to the GOP-controlled Legislature in saying that the seven-member Supreme Court is pushing to make the judicial branch operate more efficiently.

"Times are changing, and Kansas is in transition," Nuss told legislators. "We wanted to see if we could improve our administration of justice, be more efficient and make best use of the hard-earned money of Kansas taxpayers."

Nuss described the one-judge-per-county rule as outdated. The review of judicial branch operations included a study of district court workloads, both for the number and complexity of cases, and it said while no new judges are needed, "a reallocation should be considered."

The state enacted the law in 1983, after it had unified the administration of county court systems under the Supreme Court. Judicial branch officials and some legislators have suggested the law's repeal in the past, but the idea always has faced strong opposition from rural lawmakers.

Legislators listened politely to Nuss' address and praised the Supreme Court's emphasis on making the judicial branch more efficient, but some had misgivings about eliminating the one-judge-per-county rule. Senate President Steve Morris, a Hugoton Republican, compared losing judges to losing schools.

And Rep. Mitch Holmes, a St. John Republican, said, "That's a tough issue when you come from a rural area."

Nuss stressed that repealing the law won't necessarily lead the court to remove judges from any counties, but he said the justices need the authority to shift personnel when workloads shift.

"What it's doing is removing an artificial restriction," Nuss told reporters after his address.

House Speaker Mike O'Neal said the commission's recommendations, endorsed by the high court, deal with longstanding issues and aren't surprising. Still, he said, having the commission's report and the caseload study are helpful.

"Hopefully that will be the impetus to getting some changes made," said O'Neal, a Hutchinson Republican and an attorney. "The court ought to be able to manage its own judicial resources."

The court system previously has struggled with budget problems because its staff accounts for almost all of its costs. In 2010, the court was forced to close four extra days, keeping employees home without pay.

Nuss thanked legislators for not cutting funding for the court system's operations under the current budget, and he urged them not to remove almost $2 million for developing an electronic filing system from the judicial branch's proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Nuss said the court is developing an estimate for the cost of merging different district court computer systems.

Under its spending recommendations, the judicial branch's budget would increase 3.3 percent, or about $4.3 million, during the next fiscal year, to more than $133 million. The bulk of the money would come from state tax dollars, but it includes up to $11 million raised by a special surcharge in court fees that the justices imposed amid previous budget problems.

"We ask to be free to exercise more of the flexibility practiced by today's Kansas farmers and other Kansas businesspeople because this increased flexibility is necessary for us to better meet the justice needs of all Kansas citizens," Nuss said.

Kansas judicial branch: http://www.kscourts.org

Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org

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