Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Marla Luckert urged a joint session of the Kansas Legislature to consider a way of stabilizing the judicial branch’s funding stream and to add nearly two dozen judges statewide. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Marla Luckert proposed during a Tuesday speech to a joint session of the Kansas Legislature adoption of a judicial branch budget model tied to general state revenue rather than volatile court fee funds and requested state resources to add 13 district judges and 10 magistrate judges.
Luckert, who has served as a judge or justice for nearly 30 years, expressed gratitude for the Legislature’s commitment to raise judicial pay 5% in the current and upcoming fiscal years and by working to bring salaries of every court employee up to market rates. She praised state lawmakers for authorizing the hiring of additional court service officers to perform statutory duties assigned by the Legislature.
“To say the enhancement had a profound impact is an understatement,” Luckert said. “Your commitment made employees feel valued. And, in turn, morale improved, and resiliency grew.”
She recommended the Legislature end reliance on a budget model linked to fees paid by people engaged in the court system. She said fluctuations in fee revenue caused staffing problems because most of the state budget was devoted to court employees. A solution would be to funnel court fees to the state’s general treasury and make appropriations to the judicial branch part of the routine budget process.
In addition, the chief justice said a caseload study indicated the judicial branch had need for an additional 13 district judges, 10 district magistrate judges and staff to support those judges.
“New judge positions have not been added since 2008. Currently, workloads in some parts of the state far exceed judicial capacity and the need for more judges and staff is great,” Luckert said.
Kansas House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, extended the invitation to the chief justice to present a State of the Judiciary report to the Legislature. It occurred on the same day Gov. Laura Kelly was set to deliver the State of the State speech in the House chamber.
“Today will mark the first State of the Judiciary in House chambers by a female chief justice, and the first time in Kansas history that the State of the Judiciary and the governor’s State of the State address will be presented on the same day in House chambers. It is a privilege to have all three branches of government come together today to celebrate our state’s successes, analyze the challenges and communicate priorities.”
Luckert, appointed to the Supreme Court in 2002 by Republican Gov. Bill Graves, has served as chief justice since 2019. Her tenure as chief has coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has taken lives of judicial branch staff and dramatically altered operation of courts in Kansas.
“It was another unprecedented year marked by disruption of processes and tremendous uncertainty brought on by a worldwide pandemic,” she said.
The public health crisis expanded expectations among regular court consumers and the public for adoption of more online services and legal proceedings, Luckert said.
In response, she said, the judicial branch leveraged grants to develop technology aimed at modernizing court operations. That included a successful pilot project integrating a cellphone app to answer questions about handling traffic citations, she said. The courts adopted a web-based format enabling couples to apply online for a marriage license.
The judicial branch secured computer hardware and software to increase remote conferencing for clerks, interpreters and court service officers, she said. District courts conducted all types of hearings remotely unless constrained by constitutional protections. The appellate courts pivoted to remote oral arguments.
“Online hearings have allowed many Kansans to attend court without needing to take a day off work,” Luckert said. “This, in turn, benefits our business community. We have found that judicious use of this technology can ease access and lower costs, which often improves due process and procedural fairness.”
The judiciary’s web portal has been used by individuals applying for protection from abuse orders. After six months of operation, she said, half of all protection orders were being filed through the portal, Luckert said.
“These applicants usually lack help from an attorney. And, because of their circumstances, they often find it difficult — or even unsafe— to come to the courthouse. The portal eases those burdens,” she said.
She said the pandemic slowed implementation of the judicial branch’s transition to a case management system deployed in only 26 counties. Additional counties will make the move in June, she said.
In April, the chief justice said, a mental health summit will examine options for improving the judicial system’s response to behavioral health issues of people engaged in the courts. A special committee is working on new approach to resolving landlord-tenant disputes, she said.
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