Kansas Supreme Court chief justice points to attorney shortage, specialty courts, behavioral health

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Luckert requests raises for court workers, judges in State of Judiciary speech

TOPEKA — Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Marla Luckert in her State of the Judiciary speech Wednesday asked lawmakers for support of specialty courts, behavioral health services, and pay raises for judges and court employees.

Luckert also sounded an alarm about the severe shortage of attorneys in rural areas.

“Judges across the state report they cannot find attorneys to appoint when the law requires them to do so,” Luckert said, “and your neighbors struggle to find an attorney to help with legal issues.”

The chief justice delivered her speech on the House floor to a joint session of representatives and senators. Outside, self-described abolitionists Kevan Myers, of Kansas City, Kansas, and Clifton Boje, of Bonner Springs, held signs denouncing abortion — a statement about the Kansas Supreme Court’s 2019 ruling that established the constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy.

One sign read: “The laws against murder should be applied equally to all people.” Another read: “We are ambassadors of Jesus Christ pleading from God a message of reconciliation.”

Luckert avoided the subject of reproductive health rights during her 30-minute speech. Instead, she emphasized progress courts have made to address a backlog of cases delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, along with specialty courts that emphasize treatment programs.

“One of the most urgent needs is to address the behavioral health issues that underlie many criminal, juvenile, and other cases,” Luckert said.

The chief justice brought state officials together last year for a mental health summit and established a work group “to improve our response to justice-involved individuals with behavioral health issues.”

Legislators responded to her comments on behavioral health with a standing ovation.

Anti-abortion protestors hold signs
Kevan Myers, left, of Kansas City, Kansas, and Clifton Boje, of Bonner Springs, protest outside the House chamber Wednesday ahead of the State of the Judiciary speech. The two said they identify as abolitionists. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Specialty courts

Luckert said specialty courts across the state “use problem-solving procedures like intensive supervision, treatment and mentoring to address underlying factors that contribute to a person’s involvement in the court system.” Those factors often are connected to addiction or other behavioral health, she said.

There are 12 specialty courts that deal with drugs or alcohol and two that deal with behavioral health. There are also juvenile drug courts, outpatient treatment courts, and truancy courts. Five counties have a veterans treatment court.

Graduates say the specialty court programs have transformed their lives, Luckert said. The programs reduce incarceration costs for the state and four counties.

Luckert told lawmakers the biggest barrier to expanding the courts is funding. The current funding is piecemeal, she said, with reliance on federal grants, local nonprofits and private donations.

Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Marla Luckert
Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Marla Luckert greets lawmakers as she arrives Wednesday in the House chamber. Other Supreme Court justices follow her. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Rural fervor

Rural Kansas collectively has 25% of the attorneys needed, Luckert said, and in some areas, the shortage is more dire.

She said a new committee is looking at unmet legal needs. The panel’s work includes studying recruitment programs and examining strategies to provide attorney services in underserved areas. Justice K.J. Wall will lead the panel.

“This shortage undermines access to justice and jeopardizes many Kansans’ ability to obtain legal representation,” Luckert said.

Judicial pay

Luckert praised legislators for raising judicial pay and employee salaries in previous sessions but said additional raises are needed.

She asked lawmakers to provide a cost of living adjustment for employee positions and a raise for judges.

“To highlight the pay gap, some brand-new attorneys in the Kansas City area begin their careers making more than the district judges they appear before,” Luckert said. “Under the criteria you have set, those new attorneys could not apply to be a judge for at least another five years. Over those five years or more, their pay increases, and the gap between what they make and what we can offer judge candidates grows wider.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus 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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