TOPEKA — The Kansas House responded to fear that alleged murderers and rapists awaiting trial were on the verge of being released from jail by overwhelmingly approving legislation Thursday waiving for three years the state’s speedy-trial law guaranteeing defendants the setting of trial dates within 150 days of being charged.
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to generate turmoil in Kansas district courts amid the clashing statutory right to a speedy trial and the constitutional right of a defendant to confront an accuser. Prosecutors pleaded with state lawmakers to suspend until May 1, 2024, the state law defining what was meant by speedy trial in Kansas. House Bill 2078 would strip away a 150-day definition, leaving it to the courts to interpret residual constitutional rights possessed by defendants to face accusers and receive a prompt trial.
The bill was forwarded to the Senate by the House on a bipartisan vote of 107-17 despite protests from five Republican representatives convinced the legislation trampled on the embedded-in-stone constitutional rights of alleged criminals. The bill also was opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and the Kansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
“I don’t believe we should ever suspend the constitution,” said Rep. Brett Fairchild, a Republican from St. John. “Courts in Kansas should have held trials remotely since Covid started. The defendants in Kansas shouldn’t be deprived of their rights because of the incompetency of our judicial system.”
Rep. Tatum Lee-Hahn, a GOP legislator from Ness City, said adherence to constitutional principles shouldn’t be an option in the Capitol. She expressed alarm district court judges pivoted during the pandemic in ways that potentially placed public safety at risk.
“It is lunacy that the judiciary decided that in a pandemic they were going to slow their caseload and leave the public in a potentially dangerous situation,” Lee-Hahn said.
Rep. Michael Murphy, a Sylvia Republican, said the judicial branch was asking the legislative branch to codify a disruption of constitutional rights. House members shouldn’t do anything “to rubberstamp their shortcomings,” he said.
The Kansas County and District Attorneys Association and other proponents of the bill said the separate constitutional right to speedy trial was untouched by the House bill. They asserted failure to suspend the 150-day requirement would force judges to begin releasing people accused of horrible crimes because of a massive jury trial backlog related to the coronavirus.
Rep. Fred Patton, the Topeka Republican attorney and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, reminded his colleagues the constitutional provision related to speedy trials would remain unabridged. He urged skeptics of the House bill to read the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which provides defendants in all criminal cases the right to be confronted with witnesses against him or her. This right of defendants is meant to be a face-to-face confrontation rather than accomplished through now-common link by Zoom or some other video technology, he said.
“Look at the constitution. Look at the Sixth Amendment. It says you have a constitutional right to confront your accusers,” Patton said.
Rep. John Carmichael, an attorney and Wichita Democrat, said the consequence of lawmakers refusing to yield to the reality of trial scheduling challenges could be catastrophic for law-abiding citizens.
“If we don’t pass this legislation,” Carmichael said, “murderers will have to be released from jail.”
The Legislature shouldn’t “take the heat” if the judicial branch started cutting loose people awaiting trial for violent offenses simply because Kansas statute included an “arbitrary” 150-day deadline for setting trial dates, said Rep. Stephen Owens, a Hesston Republican.
The House bill also outlined elements the district courts ought to consider when scheduling trials. Those factors included relative prejudice to the defendant, a defendant’s assertion to right of a speedy trial, the calendar of trial lawyers, availability of witnesses and the prospect of safety of the proceedings to participants during the public health emergency.
In March 2020, Gov. Laura Kelly signed a bill that amended the speedy-trial law in Kansas. It authorized the chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court to issue orders extending or suspending deadlines and time limits in statute to conform to obstacles raised by the pandemic. The state law required that any trial scheduled while that court order was in place had to be scheduled within 150 days of ending that order.