Archive for Wednesday, March 20, 2002

Chief justice’s move good for state courts

March 20, 2002

Last week, in a surprise move, the chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court revealed her plan to implement a much-needed revenue-builder.

Courts in Kansas are in dire financial straits, facing a $3.5 million budget cut by the Legislature.

So Chief Justice Kay McFarland has ordered an increase in court fees that will take effect on April 1.

Most fees will increase by $5, while the price of a marriage license will go up by $25. Those rate hikes should compensate for the cuts the Legislature likely will make this session.

Some legislators said McFarland went too far, adding that she was usurping the Legislature's power.

But what was the chief justice to do? She's been sending clear messages to legislators for several months. She's been telling them that the courts are in trouble and that she likely would have to furlough workers who already are underpaid, compared with their counterparts in the private sector.

If court employees are placed on furlough, their work doesn't go on vacation. If the employees are out of the office, attorneys merely wait until the courts reopen to file civil or criminal cases.

The papers have to be filed, the warrants have to be recalled and the subpoenas have to be issued.

And it's not as if the courts have capital budgets that they can shave. The counties pay for the court facilities, including telephones, paper and computers.

In Kansas, 97 percent of the court budget is for employees. So if the courts do any slicing away at costs, they're cutting personnel.

It's tough to find and keep good people to work in court offices, according to Leavenworth County District Judge David J. King.

"With hiring freezes that have been regular occurrences for the last six years, when there are few people here, everyone else has to do more work," he said. "It's more stressful, their pay is falling behind other jobs in the marketplace and so they start looking elsewhere."

And while hiring freezes have become the order of the day, the workload in the courts has increased.

So who could blame the chief justice for wanting to take control of the courts' destiny?

As Gov. Bill Graves said, "I probably have a lot of sympathy for the judge's position. It's a microcosm of how a lot of Kansans feel. The court is saying we're prepared to take matters into our own hands."

And it makes sense for the people who use the court system to help pay to keep it running. Enacting user fees for a revenue-strapped court system makes perfect sense.

And those legislators whose feelings were hurt that the chief justice was bright enough and insightful enough to step around them should spend their time on finding solutions to the state's fiscal crisis not worrying about whether they lost a little power.

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