CHANUTE — When it comes to delivering justice, southeast Kansas has its own unique challenges compared to the rest of the state, according to local judges, attorneys and court officials.
The recent increase in docket fees, for example, makes it especially difficult for the poor to pursue a legal action, such as divorce. So when 23 percent of a population lives in poverty, as is the case in southeast Kansas, that’s 23 percent who are denied due justice.
“People who need to access that service the most, are priced out of it. That may help the bottom line, but it will eventually make justice inaccessible,” said recently retired Neosho County District Judge Timothy Brazil of Chanute.
For David Clark, a Chanute attorney, some of his clients remain married, though they are completely out of touch with each other, simply because they don’t have the money for a divorce.
Brazil and Clark attended a forum Wednesday in Chanute to discuss the Kansas court system. Afternoon and evening forums were held as part of a year-long study of Kansas courts by a Blue Ribbon Commission appointed by the Kansas Supreme Court.
Budget woes have slowed the justice system in the Sunflower State. Kansas courts were closed and their employees furloughed for four days in 2010 because of budget constraints. The charge for the commission is to see whether efficiencies in Kansas court operations can be found. Meetings with the public and those who deal with the courts are being held across the state throughout April and May. The next meeting in this region will be May 24 in Pittsburg.
Reggie Robinson, a professor of law at Washburn State University, and this reporter are among 24 appointed to study the issue, and led Wednesday’s sessions.
WITH 98 PERCENT of the judiciary’s budget dedicated to salaries, court jobs are on the line if its budget is reduced. Jobs eliminated translate to reduced public services.
Reducing the number of probation officers, a possible savings would also unduly affect the poor, said Ken Kraxberger, a Courts Services Advocate in Chanute.
Those on probation “are doing good to hold down a job, let alone have to travel to meet with a probation officer in another county,” he said. “They’ve got to survive. Forcing them to travel puts an undo burden on them, backs them into a corner where they would do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do. That’s the root of many crimes in today’s society.”
“Every system has a point of no return. Cut the justice system too much, and it will have a large effect on a community. Crime will rise. Cut field supervision and parole officers, and you’ll have people such as sex offenders walking around free,” Kraxberger added.
Bret Heim, Iola attorney, said, “There’s a certain amount of money you have to have for an adequate court system. We’re getting very close to that line where that’s not possible.”
The thought of consolidating services strikes fear in the law enforcement community.
Again, poverty is the issue.
“A lot of people don’t have a car,” said Wade Bowie, Allen County attorney, “And they depend on their own two feet to get to the courthouse to file cases such as protection from abuse.”
Bowie said he typically handles about 20 filings a week for such protection orders, many from women who are staying at Iola’s shelter for abused women operated by Hope Unlimited.
Such a filing for protection also requires multiple trips to the courthouse, he said. Consolidating those services to a regional facility would put such protection out of reach, he said.
In Kansas, every county has a courthouse.
“If we were redrawing the Kansas map, we probably wouldn’t have 105 counties. But we do, and we have to deal with it,” said Jay Witt, a Chanute attorney.
In southeast Kansas, the counties of Neosho, Montgomery, Cowley, Crawford and Labette each have two courthouses.
For Neosho County, consolidating the two courthouses would not be a savings, attorneys said.
First off, it’s the number of filings that determine the number of positions in a county. In Neosho, four clerks between facilities in Chanute and Erie, the county seat, handle filings.
Neither building is adequate to handle all of the county’s business, said Judy Froehlich, district court clerk of Neosho County and chief clerk of the 31st Judicial District.
Linus Thuston, an attorney in Chanute, said that Neosho County’s courthouses came in handy when Dan Creitz, chief judge of the 31st Judicial District, oversaw a five-month trial based in Erie.
“If Neosho County hadn’t had a second courthouse, they wouldn’t have had another courtroom for any other trial,” he said.
Daryl Ahlquist, also an Erie attorney, said “the Chanute courthouse is quite small,” without enough space to accommodate the county offices and services.”
“Besides, it’s a local issue,” said Brazil. “That wouldn’t save the state any money.”
Creitz reiterated the balance of funding. “Counties pay for the courthouses and their physical facilities; the state pays for personnel.”
As for Allen County, it’s short one clerk, Froehlich said, but a two-year hiring freeze is keeping the state courts without 75-80 funded positions; 5 percent of its nonjudicial work force.
In Mound City, Creitz noted, “Judge (Richard) Smith has only one court reporter for the district.”
The only way the hiring freeze can “thaw,” is through the displacement of an existing employee.
In Froelich’s opinion, the only savings would come from the state merging counties, not their courthouses, to save in administrative costs.
“There are very few caseloads that can be dealt with regionally. In order to give due justice, people must be able to reach a courthouse within a reasonable distance,” he said.
FILING DOCUMENTS electronically could be a savings, attendees said. Unfortunately, the $1.7 million slated for startup costs faces the budget ax.
A committee to study implementing electronic filing of court cases was formed in June 2009. Studies show significant savings if lawsuits and related legal documents could be filed with the courts electronically from an office or home.
“It’s a budget-cutting move,” said Creitz.
Thuston said along the lines of e-filing should be the acceptance of paying for court costs by electronic means such as PayPal.
“It’s proven itself effective as a clearinghouse for payments. Not all counties will accept credit cards,” he said.
From there, Thuston wondered how effective the state is at collecting fees.
“People are notorious for not paying court costs,” he said.
Thuston also railed against the high fee to expunge one’s past records, now set at $115 per case.
He told of a client who from age 19 to 21 committed 23 felonies. Ten years later, his desire to have his record “cleaned,” would cost him a prohibitive $2,645.
“He wants a clear record to begin anew, but can’t afford it,” Thuston said.
To a one, attorneys at both the afternoon and evening sessions urged state legislators to give “respect” to the judicial branch — the state’s third branch of government in addition to its legislative and executive.
“It’s not an agency,” said Clark, saying he had heard the comment from a legislator.
The attorneys said they have felt growing resentment against the judiciary ever since the Supreme Court’s decision in 2005 for the legislature to adequately fund state schools.
“This was an interpretation of the Constitution which the Legislature has turned into a political issue,” said Rustin Rankin, Chanute attorney. “Legislators are encroaching on the separation of powers by choosing to decide this.
“What’s unpopular, still might be the right decision,” he said.
Which brought the attorneys and judges to weigh in on the benefits of the positions of judgeships to be appointed, rather than elected.
An appointed judicial system allows judges to be above politics, they reasoned. As with the case to replace Neosho County’s Judge Brazil, a committee of eight, half of whom were attorneys, considered the applications of seven attorneys, which have now been narrowed to three. Gov. Sam Brownback will make the final decision over the next month.
The process has taken several months. The vacancy was advertised and from there a district nominating committee reviewed applications and held personal interviews with each candidate before they settled on three nominations.
If judges were elected by the public at large, contributions to their campaigns could weigh on a judge’s decision-making, the attorneys maintained. Feeling beholden to a contributor “puts a judge in an awkward position,” said Rankin.
“Impartial judges can weather a storm,” he said, while those elected can “be punished for unpopular decisions and therefore be less willing to administer justice in a fair and impartial way, especially in an election year.”
It’s up to each of the state’s 31 judicial districts whether they elect or nominate judgeships. Seventeen districts representing 52 counties select judges by merit; while 14 districts representing 52 counties elect their judges.