On Thursday, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback signed a bill that threatens the entire state’s judiciary with destruction if it rules against a law he favors. Brownback has spent much of his tenure attempting to curb the state supreme court and consolidate power in the executive branch. Thursday’s startling maneuver suggests the deeply conservative governor has no compunction about simply obliterating separation of powers when another branch of government gets in his way.
The Kansas trouble started in 2014, when the state supreme court ruled that the disparity between school funding in rich and poor districts violated the state constitution. The justices ordered the legislature to fix the problem. Soon after, the legislature passed an administrative law that stripped the supreme court of its authority to appoint local chief judges and set district court budgets. (Instead, district court judges—who are often quite conservative—were allowed to elect their own chief judge.)
Arriving shortly after the school funding ruling, this law was widely seen as a retaliation against the court—and a warning. In their first ruling, the justices stopped short of declaring that the school system as a whole was constitutionally underfunded. But the court acknowledged that it would one day answer that question. And if the justices mandate more school funding, the legislature will have to raise taxes, a step few legislators are eager to take.
The administrative law, then, was likely an effort to scare the court out of issuing a dramatic ruling in favor of greater school funding. Just in case the court didn’t get the message, Brownback and the legislature have also threatened the justices with blatantly political reforms, like subjecting them to recall elections, splitting the court in two, lowering the retirement age, and introducing partisan elections. (Currently, a nominating commission creates a pool of candidates, and the governor selects from that bunch.)
Now the court has an opportunity to strike down the administrative law, which probably violates the state constitution. And that’s where Brownback’s insane new law comes in. The law declares that if the supreme court strikes down the administrative law, the entire state judiciary will lose its funding. Brownback and the legislature are essentially bullying the judiciary: Uphold our law or cease to exist.
This scheme is rather bonkers. It’s also par for the course for Kansas Republicans, who turned their state into a failed Tea Party experiment and are now terrified of paying the price. The state supreme court is simply pushing the legislature and the governor to uphold their basic constitutional duties. In response, the legislature and the governor are trying to destroy the court. That’s not democracy. It’s just extortion.