When the Kansas Supreme Court does its job, state conservatives play the victim
The Kansas Supreme Court’s latest ruling on school funding dropped with a thud at 5 p.m. on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend. The accusations quickly followed.
The justices were bullies, playing politics and shredding the Kansas Constitution. Worse, they were ruining what little summer vacation beleaguered state lawmakers had been looking forward to.
The timing did seem strange. Why hand down a momentous decision that could lead to a shutdown of Kansas public schools just as most people were departing for a three-day weekend?
Probably the justices were refining the ruling until the last moment. And it made sense to release it in advance of the Legislature’s closing day, which was the following Wednesday. But to conservative lawmakers, the holiday news dump was just more evidence that the Kansas Supreme Court means to mess with them.
Jeff Melcher, a Republican state senator from Leawood, expressed that suspicion vividly, if crudely, when the Legislature convened on its closing day. The justices, he said, “are going to continue dropping little turds … to do everything they can to try to discredit the Legislature.”
Yes, a trail of poo was surely what the justices who ruled in the Gannon-versus-Kansas case were thinking. Never mind the voluminous evidence filed in the case. Forget about all those hours of testimony. Ignore the brazen changes made to a funding formula approved by the court. The Kansas Legislature was nothing but a victim getting a load dumped on its collective head.
Melcher, in a telephone interview with The Pitch, keeps to that storyline.
“You’ve got a very politically activist Supreme Court, which is trying to distract attention from the Carr brothers and abortion and all the things that are politically embarrassing to them,” Melcher says.
His theory being that the Kansas Supreme Court was shamed when the U.S. Supreme Court decisively reinstated the death sentences that the state had imposed on Jonathan and Reginald Carr for the murders of five persons in Wichita in 2000. The state Supreme Court had ruled that the death sentences were unconstitutional because of technical reasons.
The Kansas Supreme Court has also handed down decisions in abortion cases that have angered and energized anti-choice groups in the state.
“They’re trying to distract the electorate so they can defend their retention elections,” Melcher says.
Five of the Supreme Court justices will be on the November statewide ballot, and factions in Kansas, including the political apparatus of Wichita’s uber-wealthy Charles and David Koch, are gunning for their removal.
It’s kind of hard to figure how getting in the middle of a crisis that threatens school schedules, teachers’ paychecks and the start of the fall scholastic sports season would serve as a plus for justices running to keep their jobs.
Beyond that, Melcher’s distraction theory, which has been echoed in less colorful terms by other conservatives, ignores essential realities about the state Supreme Court’s job.
Which is to rule on cases.
You wouldn’t know this from the blame game going on in Topeka, but Supreme Court justices don’t create lawsuits. It isn’t the court that sued the Legislature for inadequate and inequitable funding of public education. Local school boards initiated those cases, which worked their way up through appeals to the state’s highest court.
Gov. Sam Brownback and the Legislature lit the fuse for the latest ruling in 2015 when they changed the formula for equalizing funding among wealthy and poorer school districts that the court had agreed to just a year before.
School districts in Kansas City, Kansas; Dodge City; Hutchinson; and Wichita sued, claiming the new formula shortchanged them. The Supreme Court issued a ruling in March that the state must make its funding fairer for poorer districts. The Legislature attempted a lame fix in March, basically shifting money from one pot to another. The plaintiff school districts objected, and the Supreme Court took their side.
Fix the equity problem, the latest ruling says, or the schools will be unable to remain open after June 30 because the system will be unconstitutionally funded.
So that’s where matters stand. Brownback has scheduled a special session of the Legislature for June 23. What will happen is anyone’s guess. Any viable fix would seem to involve restoring funding that was lost with the adoption of the latest formula. And Kansas is, as usual, broke.
Melcher, for one, says he won’t agree to any proposed remedy unless it is accompanied by a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment that would stop the courts from closing schools — a measure that itself would probably be challenged as unconstitutional.
Melcher also insists that he won’t go along with any plan that takes money from the Blue Valley and Shawnee Mission school districts, which he represents, and gives it to poorer districts he says aren’t achieving good results with the money they already receive.
And he makes a prediction about the justices: “If we fix this, they will drop another bomb a little bit later and they will do it at the most punitive time. I fully expect they’ll keep doing that until the election in November.”
So now it’s bombs, not turds, the court will be dropping? Either way, there’s still a bad smell coming from the other two branches of Kansas government.