By Associated Press - Saturday, September 5, 2015

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Four district court judges in Kansas are challenging the constitutionality of a new state law that threatens the budget of the judicial branch.

The lawsuit was filed Friday in Shawnee County District Court on behalf of judges from the counties of Douglas, Kingman, Labette and Riley. At issue is a 2015 law that declares that the court system’s funding through June 2017 is “null and void” if a 2014 law changing how judges are selected is invalidated.

Shawnee County District Judge Larry Hendricks on Wednesday declared the 2014 judicial selection law unconstitutional. That law has the judges in each judicial district pick their chief judges, taking the power to select them away from the Supreme Court. Hendricks said the law interfered with the power granted by the state constitution to the Kansas Supreme Court to administer the courts.

But Hendricks’ ruling didn’t address the judicial defunding legislation because it was passed after the lawsuit was filed.

“What is at stake is the independence of the Kansas judiciary,” Pedro Irigonegaray, the Topeka lawyer representing the four judges, said in an interview Saturday with The Associated Press.

He said the aim is to have the 2015 defunding law declared unconstitutional for several reasons, including that it creates “unauthorized conditions on the Legislature’s constitutional obligation to fund the Kansas judiciary” and that it “violates due process rights of litigants challenging the constitutionality” of the judicial selection law.

“If we don’t put a stop to this, our democratic government as we know it is going to be dramatically altered,” he said. “A democracy cannot long survive without an independent judicial branch of government.”

Speaking to reporters Friday, Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, who signed both the 2014 and 2015 judicial budget bills into law, defended clauses that tied funding for the court system to the outcome of the judicial selection lawsuit, the Lawrence Journal-World reported.

“The process of selecting judges is a legislative and executive function,” Brownback said. “The judiciary does not select itself, in the system of governance that we have. So I think that’s a fully appropriate thing. I thought it was a fully appropriate thing when I signed it.”

The Shawnee County District Court has not yet set a date for a hearing on the new lawsuit.

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