- Associated Press - Friday, August 28, 2015

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Kansas legislators are attacking the independence of the state’s courts by imposing an administrative policy on them and attempting to tie the judiciary’s entire budget to preserving it, an attorney for a judge argued Friday during a court hearing.

District Judge Larry Solomon of Kingman County is challenging a 2014 law that says judges in each of the state’s 31 judicial districts pick their chief judges, taking that power from the Kansas Supreme Court. Solomon has been the chief judge in the 30th District of south-central Kansas since 1991.

Solomon sued the state earlier this year. The Republican-dominated Legislature later passed another law declaring that if the courts struck down the change or others imposed by lawmakers, all of the judiciary’s funding through June 2017 would be “null and void.”

Shawnee County District Judge Larry Hendricks had a hearing in the lawsuit Friday and said he’ll rule soon. The state’s solicitor general, Stephen McAllister, asked Hendricks to dismiss the case. Solomon’s attorney, Pedro Irigonegaray, asked Hendricks to strike down the change affecting chief judges as an unconstitutional intrusion on the Supreme Court’s power to administer state courts.

Irigonegaray said the actions of the Republican-dominated Legislature and GOP Gov. Sam Brownback, who signed both laws, are “tyrannical.”

“Their desire for control of the Kansas independent judicial system blinded their judgment and led them to pass laws creating a potential chaotic situation,” Irigonegaray said.

But McAllister said the policy change attacked by Solomon is similar to other legislative decisions affecting the courts. Lawmakers determine the size of the state Court of Appeals and set judges’ salaries, for example.

“There’s always going being some mixing and crossing and some pragmatic judgments being made here,” McAllister told Hendricks.

Irigonegaray said that if Hendricks rules in Solomon’s favor, he is prepared to file a new lawsuit to prevent the court system from losing its funding.

And McAllister said, “I don’t think it’s inevitable, the whole budget goes away.”

The legal dispute is charged because conservative Republicans have long criticized the state Supreme Court over rulings on abortion, capital punishment and education funding. Four of the seven justices were appointed by former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. Brownback has proposed giving governors and lawmakers more control over how justices are selected.

In the same law Solomon is challenging, legislators also gave district judges more control over their budgets, again at the expense of the Supreme Court.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff King, an Independence Republican, said in an interview that many lawmakers wouldn’t have supported increased spending on the courts without such changes and wanted them tied to judiciary’s entire budget.

The court system’s total budget is set to increase by a total of 7.5 percent over the next two years, or by nearly $10 million, to more than $138 million.

Legislators said some district court judges wanted a say in decisions about who leads them. McAlister compared the new system to allowing a city or state commission’s members to choose their chairman.

King said: “You have a presiding officer among equals.”

But an amendment to the Kansas Constitution approved by voters in 1972 created a “unified” court system and gave the Supreme Court “general administrative authority” over the state’s courts. Irigonegaray said the chief judge is the Supreme Court’s representative in each judicial district.

“It’s as if, in the military, the sergeant is selected by the privates,” Irigonegaray said.

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .

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