- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 22, 2015

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt obtained a judicial order Tuesday preserving the state court system’s funding amid a legal dispute over an administrative policy imposed on it by legislators.

Schmidt filed a petition in Neosho County District Court to block enforcement of a law enacted earlier this year that tied the judiciary’s budget through June 2017 to the administrative policy, approved by lawmakers last year. The policy stripped the Kansas Supreme Court of its power to pick the chief judges in each of the state’s 31 judicial districts, giving it instead to local judges.

Neosho County District Judge Daryl Ahlquist granted Schmidt’s request to put this year’s measure on hold until March 15. The move gives legislators time to reconsider it after they reconvene in January.

Critics of the change in how chief judges are selected view it as an attack on the court system’s independence and accuse the Republican-dominated Legislature and GOP Gov. Sam Brownback of trying to intimidate the judiciary into accepting it through the budget process. Brownback and other supporters of the change argue it allows an important decision to be made locally.

Schmidt, also a Republican, said he wanted to create time for the dispute to be resolved “without unnecessary confrontation.”

“I am hopeful this will calm the situation,” he said.

Legislators moved to preserve the change in how chief judges are selected after Kingman County District Judge Larry Solomon, the chief judge in the 30th District, filed a lawsuit. A Shawnee County judge struck down the change earlier this month, saying it improperly interfered with the Supreme Court’s power under the state constitution to supervise the judicial branch.

The judge put his order on hold while the state appeals. Four district court judges, including Solomon, filed a second lawsuit in Shawnee County, attacking this year’s budget measure.

Both policies have been criticized by the Supreme Court.

Schmidt filed his petition Tuesday in Chanute, almost 100 miles south of Topeka, suing only acting Administration Secretary Sarah Shipman, a Brownback appointee. Copies of his request and Ahlquist’s order released by Schmidt’s office bore the same official time stamp from Tuesday morning.

Pedro Irigonegaray, a Topeka attorney representing Solomon and the other judges challenging this year’s budget measure, said he had not seen Schmidt’s petition or Ahlquist’s order until contacted by a reporter.

Schmidt’s petition said his case could be filed in Neosho County because its courts would close if funding for the judiciary were cut off. Shipman did not object.

The petition also said Shipman was the defendant because her office oversees the distribution of state funds.

“Topeka has been the epicenter of the fight between the Legislature and the Judiciary,” Schmidt spokeswoman Jennifer Rapp said an email. “We thought it better to get a fresh perspective on this issue that affects the entire state. Neosho County was suitable because it is away from Topeka.”

Schmidt argued that cutting off funding for the judiciary would violate a provision of the state constitution that prevents judges from having their pay reduced during their current terms. Also, he said, closing the courts would prevent him from carrying out his officials duties.

The attorney general said he wanted this year’s law put on hold on those narrow grounds to avoid unnecessarily fanning “the flames of conflict between the Legislature and the Judiciary.”

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Online:

Schmidt’s petition and judge’s order: https://1.usa.gov/1KMxiuG

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

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