Kansas, New York Lawmakers Tackle Judicial Issues

By John Celock

Albany and Topeka may sit 1300 miles away from each other, but lawmakers in both Kansas and New York had the judicial branch on their minds Thursday.

The Kansas House of Representatives voted unanimously to pass a bill that would not cut funding for the state’s judicial branch, a move to head off a potential crisis in the state. In New York, the state Senate unanimously confirmed Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore as the new chief judge of the state Court of Appeals.

In Kansas, the bill passed by the House would remove a clause from the current judicial budget that would cancel the court funding if the courts struck down a law that would allow district court judges to select their own chief judges, rather than the state Supreme Court making the pick. The state Supreme Court struck down the district court bill, but put a stay on the issue of the court system’s budget.

“By removing the clause the funding for the courts remains the same,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Ron Ryckman Jr. (R-Olathe) told his colleagues.

The court budget battle was the latest front in an ongoing war between the state’s judiciary, Legislature and Gov. Sam Brownback (R). Brownback has repeatedly proposed changing the nomination process for the state Supreme Court to remove a nominating commission that picks candidates for his selection. The Kansas Bar elects the majority of the commission, with four members being appointed by the governor. A constitutional amendment to overhaul judicial selection in the state has not moved in the Legislature. Brownback and conservative Republicans in the Legislature have been at odds with the court over education funding and death penalty issues.

The judicial budget bill comes a day after state lawmakers were critical of the state Supreme Court after the U.S. Supreme Court voted 8-1 to restore the death penalty to Reginald and Jonathan Carr for their role in the 2000 Wichita Massacre. The state court had overturned the Carr brothers’ death sentence in 2014, saying the process used violated the U.S. Constitution. House Speaker Ray Merrick (R-Stilwell) used the decision to suggest revisiting the appointment process.

In New York, the Republican-controlled state Senate spent part of the early afternoon heaping praise on DiFiore, as she became the state’s top judge. Lawmakers from both parties praised the new chief judge for her background and pledge for fairness.

“Janet DiFiore went out of her way to say that every case will be decided on its own merits,” Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) said. “That’s what we want. We want someone to bring fairness.”

DiFiore was nominated by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) last month to fill the vacancy left by the retirement of former Chief Judge Jonathan Lipmann. DiFiore, a former Republican who is now a Democrat, has served as Westchester County district attorney for the last decade. Prior to running for district attorney, she served over two years as a state Supreme Court justice and five years as a Westchester County judge. While on the state Supreme Court – New York’s main trial court – she was supervising judge for the criminal courts in the Hudson Valley.

DiFiore will be the second woman to serve as chief judge in New York, following former Chief Judge Judith Kaye, who died earlier this year. Kaye, who led the Court of Appeals until 2008, had chaired the judicial nominating commission that included DiFiore’s name on a list of seven presented to Cuomo late last year.

As chief judge, DiFiore will lead the state’s Court of Appeals, along with being the chief executive of New York State’s judicial system. Senators called on her to continue to focus on the management of the system. Sen. Diane Savino (D-Staten Island) said she hoped that DiFiore follows in Kaye’s footsteps in focusing on the state’s family courts, along with modernizing the courts.

Savino also outlined the management challenges facing DiFiore, including budget shortfalls and the need to renegotiate collective bargaining agreements.

“There none more daunting is that she is going to take on management of an agency that is starved for resources,” Savino said the challenges that await the new chief judge.