Judicial salary upgrade, replacement of fee revenue hang in legislative balance

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TOPEKA — Attorney Ryan Prochaska has worked since October 2019 to bring to trial in Pratt County a lawsuit filed on behalf of a child with a traumatic brain injury.

The Wichita lawyer said the state had quality judges and court officers striving to move cases forward, but lack of judicial branch funding combined with the COVID-19 pandemic had created a stifling backlog. Without a trial date, Prochaska said, defendants and especially their insurance carriers either refused to resolve cases or advanced low-ball offers to test how desperate a plaintiff was for some cash now rather than continuing to wait.

He said Pratt County didn’t have resources to conduct safe trials in midst of the pandemic, which left his brain-damaged client without timely justice.

“This delay solely harms my client and solely benefits the insurance company who continually gets to hold on to their money. I am hopeful that for the sake of the citizens of Kansas, the Legislature will adequately fund our courts so we can get back to providing timely justice to all parties,” he said.

Luckert emphasizes salaries

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly recommended 2.5% raises for state employees, including judiciary branch employees. Disagreement in the Republican-led Senate and House about how to deal with the judiciary’s $24.5 million funding request left the 2021 Legislature at a stalemate.

Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Marla Luckert touted work of court employees during the pandemic and outlined for legislators studies indicating nonjudge salaries fell below peer markets. Updated data for fiscal year 2020 showed that, depending on job classification, judicial branch employees needed increases up to 18.9% to bring salaries to market level, she said.

She said the National Center for State Courts statistics as of July 1, 2020, showed Kansas district court judge pay ranked 48th among states both in actual pay and when adjusted for cost of living.

The House was prepared to earmark $10.8 million for raising nonjudge salaries from 2.7% to 12% in an attempt to catch up with peer states. The Senate refused to buy into it.

The House bought into the judicial branch’s appeal for $9.4 million to raise compensation for judges and justices. It would amount to a 25% surge in compensation. The Senate rejected the idea, but the House offered an alternative three-year, 5% increase in salaries. No agreement was reached.

The judicial branch asked legislators for $4.3 million to add 70 court service officers to work with adults and juveniles on probation and to deal with children in need of care and victims of domestic conflict. The recommendation was based on workload studies by the National Center for State Courts and a separate Kansas task force that concluded the state’s judicial branch didn’t have enough personnel to adequately perform all mandated duties.

The Legislature also considered allocating $7.4 million to replace fee revenue lost to COVID-19 because fewer cases moved through the judicial process.

The House and Senate budget committees plan to resume discussion of judicial branch employee compensation ahead of the full Legislature’s return to Topeka next Monday.

‘Can’t compete with that’

John Steelman, district court administrator in Franklin, Anderson, Coffey and Osage counties, said the state’s court system struggled with employee recruiting, hiring and retention as compensation levels trailed what was offered in the private sector and by county governments. He said it took about one year to fully train a district court clerk who could earn $17 per hour, while a clerk in the county attorney’s office could make $18.50 per hour.

“No matter how I am with morale,” Steelman said, “you can’t compete with that. And our county clerks of the court, they’re the engine that runs everything.”

David Morantz, at attorney with Shamberg, Johnson & Bergman in Kansas City, Mo., works with clients on personal injury and wrongful death cases across Kansas. COVID-19 restrictions have started to ease, but the change would result in a flood of old and new cases juggling for position on trial dockets, he said.

“It’s tougher than just hitting a switch and returning to normal,” Morantz said. “Cases that had to be largely put on hold will still take time to resolve as courts process new cases tied to evictions, foreclosures, collections, divorces and child placements.”

The docket also will include individual grievances about COVID restrictions that a new state law requires be heard within 72 hours.

“We need our courts to be fully funded and functioning efficiently, otherwise society suffers. Delays will have real-life impacts on businesses, parents, children and nearly everyone in Kansas,” he said.

Wichita attorney Richard James concurred with Morantz and said trial attorneys sought to “step into these tragic moments in clients lives and try to help them put the pieces back together. Getting their case to trial is key in helping them put one of the worst days of their lives behind them.”

Pedro Irigonegaray, who practices law in Topeka, said the Legislature’s attacks on the judiciary in response to certain court decisions wasn’t new. The struggle to move forward on compensation packages for judges and nonjudge employees can be viewed as another of the Legislature’s misadventures, he said.

“Kansas legislators owe a constitutional duty to adequately fund our Kansas courts. It’s not optional. Democracy requires our courts be adequately funded and independent,” Irigonegaray said. “We Kansans rely on our courts for our safety, our security and our peace. To deny Kansans adequate funding of our state’s judicial system is not only wrong it’s reckless.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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