Chief Justice calls for stabilization of court fees, funding for 13 new judges

Chief Justice Marla Luckert addresses a joint session of the Kansas House and Senate.
Published: Jan. 11, 2022 at 1:56 PM CST
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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - In her State of the Judiciary address, Kansas’s Chief Justice has called for the stabilization of court fees and funding for 13 new judges to keep the judicial branch running in 2022.

On Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 11, Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Marla Luckert addressed the state to update residents and officials about the state of the judicial branch. She said 2021 brought challenges as well as accomplishments during an unprecedented year marked by the disruption of processes and uncertainty brought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“During my video report to you last year, I noted the spirit of perseverance shown by judicial employees and judges. 2021 required these same individuals to be incredibly resilient,” said Luckert.

In 2021, Luckert said the COVID-19 vaccine rollout coupled with declining case numbers contributed to the feeling of crossing the pandemic finish line. However, she said new variants and the nature of the virus required the judicial branch to repeatedly adapt to the changing and challenging conditions.

“Sadly, as in 2020, the judicial branch suffered losses, through death and disability, of co-workers and loved ones to COVID,” Luckert said. “I want to offer a special tribute to the employees we lost, their loved ones, and those who felt the pain of losing a co-worker. Despite the heavy toll, a resilient spirit came through.”

“Kansans have long shown resiliency when faced with hardship. The dust storms we experienced across the State about a month ago reminded us of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, another period that tested Kansans’ collective resilient spirit,” she continued.

As a fourth-generation western Kansan, Luckert said she grew up with stories of dust storms that disrupted everyday life as dirt covered the state, making drifts as deep as snow could. She said one-room schools dotted the state’s landscape and her parents spent many nights in their schools as they took shelter from the wind and blinding dust.

“They told stories of neighbors coming together to improve the shelter of the schoolhouses and of families who contributed food to the school, even though those families struggled to put food on their own tables,” she said.

Finally, she said the rains came and Kansas farmers adopted new agricultural practices to set off the effects of the extreme storms. With time, she said these practices evolved into precision agriculture that relies heavily on technology.

Much as the Dust Bowl was a turning point for Kansas farmers, Luckert said the COVID-19 pandemic has become a turning point for Kansas courts.

“Over the past two years, the employees and judges of the Kansas judicial branch dug deep and found that same spirit of perseverance, resiliency, innovation, and adaptability,” said Luckert. “And, just as in the ‘30s, when neighbors came together to help each other and their schools, Kansas judicial branch employees forged ahead and improved the shelter courts provide.”

Luckert said she is proud and grateful for the extraordinary work and heavy lifting done by judges, staff and justice partners in 2021. On Tuesday, she said she wanted to highlight a few ways the court system transformed. She also thanked the Legislature for its work during the pandemic.

“When I reported to you that the Kansas Supreme Court had been forced to impose a crippling hiring freeze because of a pandemic-related drop in revenue, you responded by filling that gap,” Luckert said. “You also recognized we would need to fill our open positions with qualified individuals able to handle the courts’ sensitive and technical duties. Because the work of courts affects public safety and the lives of Kansans, we partnered with you to overcome a long-term problem. For more than a decade, stagnant and under-market pay had plagued the judicial branch by hindering our ability to attract and retain employees. You responded to the need by committing to bring the pay of every employee position to last year’s market rate by July 1, 2022.”

Luckert said the enhancement had a profound impact and the commitment of the Legislature made employees feel valued. In turn, she said morale improved and resiliency grew.

Since the start of the fiscal year, Luckert also said court administrators across the state have reported seeing improved qualifications in candidates for many staff positions. She said they attribute the improvement to the new market-competitive salaries.

Luckert said court staff are also grateful for the commitment to increase judicial pay by 5% in both fiscal years 2022 and 2023. She said the increase will soften the blow of the cost-of-living increases.

The Chief Justice also thanked the Legislature for the new court service officers funded after data was presented which showed a lack of sufficient staff to perform fundamental statutory duties.

With the appropriations, Luckert said transformative change was sparked.

“The need for change may have never been greater given what we faced last year,” she said. “The pandemic propelled public expectations that we would provide online services.”

Luckert said courts responded to user needs and expectations through increasing online access to services and court hearings. She said courts aggressively pursued grant opportunities and leveraged the funds to develop the technology necessary to modernize operations.

As one example, Luckert said courts are piloting an app that asks questions about a traffic citation and generates a “traffic pass” which will instruct how to resolve the citation based on answers provided. Given the success of the pilot, she said courts hope to soon expand the use of the app in other parts of the state.

Another innovation - a web portal that allows Kansans to apply for protection from abuse orders. Luckert said within six months of statewide use, half of all protection orders have been filed through the portal. She said applicants usually lack help from an attorney, and because of circumstances, often find it difficult or unsafe to come to the courthouse. She said the portal eases those burdens.

Luckert also said a popular, third web-based innovation allows couples to apply for marriage licenses online, eliminating the need to be physically present at the courthouse.

“Kansas is a frontrunner in launching these technologies and is now presenting and sharing our experiences nationally as we help other states develop similar apps and portals,” she said.

Kansas courts also used grant funding to acquire hardware and software needed for increased use of remote conferencing technology. Clerks, court service officers, self-represented help centers and interpreters have widely used remote conferencing technologies to help residents. Having found demand and success, courts said they will continue to do so in the future.

Luckert said remote hearings became a valuable tool in every courthouse’s toolbox. She said district courts held all types of hearings remotely unless constrained from doing so by constitutional protections. She said appellate courts also quickly pivoted to conduct arguments remotely.

Now, the Chief Justice said many litigants and attorneys ask for remote hearings. She said online hearings have allowed Kansans to attend court without needing to take the day off work. This, she said, in turn, benefits the business community. She said they also found that judicious use of the tech can ease access and lower costs, which often improves due process and procedural fairness.

“But remote hearings do not fit well for some proceedings and some circumstances,” said Luckert. “So Kansas courts also developed methods to protect the health of court users during in-person court proceedings.”

Luckert said jury trials were the biggest obstacle due to the requirement of large groups of people being brought together - often reluctant to be in a large crowd.

During the summer of 2020, Luckert said jury trials were allowed when necessary to protect constitutional speedy trial rights. However, she said all other trials were paused until a task force developed guidelines and courts worked with local health agencies to adapt in the courthouse. Jury trials resumed in the late summer of 2020, which means they were an available tool for courts during most of the fiscal year 2021.

“In sum, courts worked hard to keep cases moving forward. For example, statewide, courts resolved more than 31,000 criminal cases in fiscal year 2021,” Luckert said.

Luckert said the legislative and executive branches have agreed to collaborate with the judicial branch to plan a mental health summit previewed in a webinar last fall. She said the summit will be held on April 13 and 14 and Speaker Ron Ryckman, President Ty Masterson, Governor Laura Kelly and herself will welcome all attendees. She said community leaders, behavioral health professionals, law enforcement, first responders, faith-based leaders and others will attend and learn how courts, communities and the state can improve its response to those with behavioral health issues who become involved with the judicial system.

In another collaborative project, Luckert said courts worked with the Kansas Department for Children and Families grant project to develop a tracking tool meant to reduce time to adoption. She said these are but two examples of the ways the courts have and will continue to join with the two other branches in efforts to protect the most vulnerable Kansans.

On another front, Luckert said courts recently formed a committee working to improve the processing of landlord-tenant disputes and to develop self-help resources for landlords and tenants. She said the committee’s work will aid Kansas entrepreneurs, neighbors and communities.

Luckert said specialty courts were also supported in 2021. She said these courts focus on addressing the reasons for criminal behavior, like behavioral health or substance abuse issues. Successfully completing specialty court is hard work she said, much harder than regular probation. A defendant is required to undertake sets of rigorous sessions meant to break hard-wired behavior. She said the success rates in reducing recidivism in these courts is impressive and they save Kansas money costing a small fraction compared to incarceration.

To help these efforts, Luckert said a committee was formed to spearhead initiatives to support existing specialty courts and to help start new ones. She said in early 2021, there was also a four-part webinar series about how to establish specialty courts that provide supervision, mentoring and treatment for veterans usually with the support of the Veterans Administration.

Outside the criminal sphere, Luckert said courts have worked hard to increase access to justice by developing more forms, with accompanying information, to help unrepresented litigants navigate legal filings.

“We have also increased support for self-help centers in our courthouses where individuals can access these forms and other information and can often find limited assistance from a volunteer attorney or Kansas Legal Services. And we made rule changes designed to increase access to assistance from an attorney at no- or low-costs,” Luckert said.

In 2021, the Chief Justice said courts also sought to improve administrative efficiency and their stewardship of taxpayer resources. She said a key component of this effort was the continued rollout of the new case management system.

“This rollout slowed during the pandemic,” Luckert said. “But we worked with our vendor to improve the system and the rollout process as we remained focused on ensuring smooth transitions to the new system. To date, 26 counties are using the new case management system, and more are scheduled to go live on June 6.”

As courts continue to join the system, Luckert said they also move to a centralized payment system to process the district’s part of the millions of dollars Kansas courts collect for the benefit of the state government.

“Recently, we added a court service officer module to the case management system. This module will allow for enhanced client supervision and data collection,” Luckert said. “We are proud of the progress we made on these efforts to improve the judicial system and better serve our communities despite the challenges presented in 2021.”

Luckert said as courts look forward to 2022 and beyond, budget help is needed in three ways. First, she said she has proposed eliminating the judicial branch’s dependence on unpredictable fee funding.

“Because most of our state budget funds our workforce, any budget shortfall falls on the shoulders of Kansans as we are unable to staff critical positions across the state. We request that the fees that now fund the judicial branch be redirected to the state general fund and that the judicial branch receive an amount equal in return,” said Luckert.

By redirecting certain fees, Luckert said the overall state budget would in most years achieve a net neutral exchange or even a positive gain for the state general fund, assuming past trends continue. Granted, she said in some years fee fund receipts could fall below projections. She said the occasional downward trend can be better absorbed in a fund the size of the state general fund than in the much smaller judicial branch budget.

Second, Luckert asked for funding for 13 new district judge positions along with support staff and 10 new district magistrate positions.

“A recently conducted weighted caseload study showed the need for these positions and more. 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,” she said.

Third, Luckert asked for continued commitment from the legislature for maintaining judicial branch employees at market wages through the implementation of the second year of the pay increases and by including the judicial branch in any cost of living increases adopted.

“While our budget requests this year do not ask for other salary increases, I want to alert you to challenges we continue to face at the two ends of our salary spectrum,” Luckert said. “On one end, we have had trouble filling our lowest-paid trial court clerk positions. We must compete with rapidly increasing salaries that businesses across the economy are offering these entry-level workers.”

At the other end of the pay spectrum, Luckert said courts have also had trouble attracting judicial candidates.

“The Kansas court system still faces many challenges. But with the resiliency demonstrated by our families in the 1930s, and, more recently, by the employees and judges of the Kansas judicial system, we will continue to respond with creative solutions to ensure our courts operate at the level Kansans have come to expect. Just as Kansas farmers adopted new practices in reaction to the Dust Bowl and emerged stronger and better, the pandemic pushed the Kansas judicial branch to use new practices and technology that make it stronger and better,” said Luckert.

Luckert said she looks forward to continuing to partner with colleagues in the executive and legislative branches as the courts enter the new year.

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