- Associated Press - Friday, September 18, 2015

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) - Justices who publicly criticized a 2014 law to strip the Kansas Supreme Court of its ability to appoint chief judges should not review the appeal in a lawsuit challenging the law’s constitutionality, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt said Friday.

The constitution “insists upon both legislative control of the purse strings and judicial independence,” Schmidt, who filed a notice of appeal Friday in the recent court decision that struck down the 2014 law, said in a statement.

“From the standpoint of the attorney general’s office … I urge a healthy dose of humility and restraint by all involved in an effort to ease tensions and improve inter-branch cooperation.”

The Republican-controlled Legislature stripped the justices of their ability to appoint chief district court judges in each of the state’s 31 judicial districts, transferring the power to the district judges instead. The Legislature sought earlier this year to preserve the change by enacting another law saying that if the first policy is invalided, the judicial branch’s entire budget through June 2017 is “null and void.”

Shawnee County District Judge Larry Hendricks struck down the 2014 law this month, calling it an unconstitutional interference, but put it on hold Schmidt’s request. That temporarily ended the threat to the court system’s funding.

Schmidt said he planned to formally ask the justices to recuse themselves from deciding the case because it directly involves their own power. He said he recognizes such a move would be unusual, but said there is precedent in Kansas and other states.

“Although I would prefer to avoid the crossfire between these two branches of government in which I do not serve, I cannot. My office is responsible for providing legal representation for the State when it is sued - even when it is sued by its own judges,” Schmidt said. “As attorney general, I do not have the luxury of standing aside and watching events unfold.”

When Republican Gov. Sam Brownback signed the measure into law in April 2014, the court issued a statement saying it weakened the state’s “unified” court system. Of the seven current justices, only Brownback appointee Caleb Stegall started serving since then.

Even though the high court arguably would have a conflict of interest, Chief Justice Lawton Nuss said earlier this month, its members still might review the lawsuit. The high court was hearing arguments and conferring on other cases Friday; its spokeswoman had no immediate comment on Schmidt’s request.

The attorney general also announced Friday that he planned to remove himself from a separate lawsuit in which three district court judges and a district judge are challenging the Legislature’s authority to link judicial branch funding to the selection of chief judges. Schmidt cited a conflict of interest because he represents one of the plaintiffs in an unrelated case.

Kansas Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff King - who was an architect of the policy change at issue - insisted Friday that there is no intent in the Legislature to defund the judiciary.

The Independence Republican said legislators felt local control was important in 2014, and that this year’s decision to tie in judicial funding was meant to give lawmakers a chance to re-evaluate how much money the judges receive if they don’t have local control over its spending.

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