TOPEKA—Chief Justice Marla Luckert today delivered her State of the Judiciary address by video and provided a more detailed 2021 State of the Judiciary to the governor, the chairs of the House and Senate judiciary committees, and all members of the Kansas Legislature.
In other years, the chief justice has formally addressed a joint session of the Kansas Senate and House of Representatives. This year Luckert announced she would deliver the State of the Judiciary address by video to protect the safety and well-being of members of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Luckert acknowledged much of this year's report focuses on the ways Kansas courts confronted the challenges the pandemic posed.
"I am proud to say that Kansas judicial branch employees and judges reacted by harnessing bold ideas, implementing thoughtful solutions, and adopting a spirit of perseverance that moved our judiciary forward. Many innovations provided Kansans with easier means for accessing courts," she said.
Because of their efforts, she added, essential court operations never stopped in 2020.
"The judges and employees of the Kansas judicial branch channeled the drive to care for neighbors into virtual court hearings, remote working environments, carefully crafted plans for making court offices and courtrooms safer, and new strategies for safeguarding the health of all who enter Kansas courthouses," she said.
Luckert detailed many of the judicial branch's efforts to keep courts operating during the pandemic and its other innovations and accomplishments in 2020.
Jury trials and Ad Hoc Jury Task Force
Jury trials have presented challenges from the start of the pandemic and continue to do so. Courts must uphold the constitutional right to a jury trial while providing jurors, witnesses, and the public assurance that courtrooms are safe.
The Supreme Court temporarily canceled new jury trials in mid-March. By the end of May, the Supreme Court allowed jury trials to resume when needed to protect a person's constitutional right to speedy trial. A later order allowed courts to proceed with jury trials in any case as long as the court has consulted with the local public health department, is operating in accordance with an approved jury plan to help ensure the safety of all participants, and is adhering to all health guidelines in relevant administrative orders.
The Supreme Court created the Ad Hoc Jury Task Force to analyze the issues courts would face when jury operations resumed. The task force's report, Resuming Trials Amid COVID-19, includes best practices judges can use to establish jury plans in their districts.
Ad Hoc Virtual Court Proceedings Committee
The Supreme Court established the Ad Hoc Virtual Court Proceedings Committee to study and recommend best practices for using videoconferencing in Kansas courts. The committee delivered its Kansas trial courts virtual courtroom standards and guidelines for district courts to follow.
Appellate court dockets
Appellate courts shifted proceedings to a videoconference format to enable the appellate courts to continue to hear cases. Oral arguments are now livestreamed on YouTube.
Self-represented litigant case filing
Because self-represented litigants are not allowed to efile, the Supreme Court developed ways for them to file documents with the district and appellate courts after physical access to courthouses was restricted.
Before the pandemic, parties needed to appear in person at a courthouse to sign necessary documents and take an oath. The judicial branch used grant funding to develop an online marriage license application in partnership with the Information Network of Kansas and Kansas.gov. This new process allows couples to apply for a license at any time from any location without the need for in-person contact at a courthouse
Protection order portal
Individuals seeking an order of protection from abuse, stalking, sexual assault, or human trafficking typically go to a courthouse to pick up the forms needed to begin a largely paper-based, in-person process. Grant funding paid for a web-based protection order portal for filing protection orders. The portal launched December 1 in Harvey, Johnson, and Riley counties and will be expanded to the state's remaining counties.
Virtual court directory
Grant funding paid for an online virtual court directory to provide a central location to access a virtual court proceeding that is open to the public. The portal lists participating judges by judicial district and provides links to livestreamed court proceedings and dockets.
Other technological innovations
Among other innovations in 2020, the judicial branch rolled out a new website and implemented a text notification system that allows courts to communicate with court participants about hearing dates and provide other information. The courts also continued implementing the branch's statewide centralized case management system, bringing 17 counties on board.
The Ad Hoc Pretrial Justice Task Force delivered its final report to the Supreme Court. The report contains 19 recommendations that address all stages of the pretrial justice process, from points before arrest to trial.
The court also received recommendations from the National Center of State Courts about ways to improve services to self-represented litigants. The judicial branch conducted training and implemented several recommendations.
Other accomplishments include the implementation of a court interpreter orientation program, rule amendments making it easier for attorneys to provide pro bono services and clarifying attorney discipline procedures, and efforts to strengthen and expand specialty courts. The year ended with a four-part webinar designed to help courts set up and operate veteran treatment courts.
Two significant grants helped pay for many of these innovations.
In July, the judicial branch received $1.6 million from the federal Coronavirus Emergency Supplemental Funding Program (CESF) to help pay for technology improvements to provide digital access to justice and allow courts to conduct more operations remotely.
In September, the judicial branch received a $3.52 million Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) grant to pay for pandemic-related expenses and to help courts shift to more online and remote services. The State Finance Council approved the grant following a recommendation from the governor’s Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas (SPARK) Task Force.
Pandemic impact on revenues and expenditures
When attorneys, their clients, and courts shifted operational practices because of the pandemic, the number of case filings dropped, and the judicial branch saw a corresponding decrease in docket fees.
For the last four months of fiscal year 2020—from March through June 2020—the judicial branch received about $2.7 million less than it had budgeted in its docket fee fund.
For the first five months of fiscal year 2021—from July through November 2020—the judicial branch received about $2 million less in docket fee revenue to the docket fee fund and the electronic filing and management fund than it did over that same period the previous year—an approximate 16% loss for those two funds for that period.
The judicial branch absorbed these decreases by instituting a hiring freeze and cutting other expenditures. Currently, around 11% of judicial branch employee positions are vacant.
The chief justice also outlined several budget requests.
A workload study showed the judicial branch does not have enough court services officers to adequately perform all statutorily mandated duties. To meet that need, the judicial branch must hire 70 additional court services officers. The judicial branch fiscal year 2022 budget request contains $4.3 million for that expenditure.
The judicial branch received grant funding to conduct market salary studies for its approximately 1,600 employee positions in 2016. That study was updated in 2018. In the years following those studies, the Office of Judicial Administration updated the information by applying the consumer price index increase for the relevant fiscal year. Updated data for fiscal year 2020 shows that, depending on job classification, judicial branch employees still need increases from 2.7% to 18.9% to bring their salaries to market level, allowing the judicial branch to compete with other public and private sector employers. The judicial branch fiscal year 2022 budget request contains $10.8 million to bring employee salaries to market level.
Kansas judges remain among the lowest paid judges in the nation. National Center for State Courts statistics as of July 1, 2020, showed Kansas district judge pay ranks 48th out of 50 states both in actual pay and when adjusted for cost of living. The judicial branch fiscal year 2022 budget request includes $9.4 million to bring district judge pay equal to an average salary for district judges, after making a cost of living adjustment, in Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. The request would increase salaries for appellate court justices and judges and district magistrate judges by the same percentage increase. This salary increase would improve Kansas' district judge actual salary to 25th out of 50 states.