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Kansas Courts and the Rule of Law2024-06-15T16:13:27-05:00

Kansas Courts and the Rule of Law

About this Collection

The role of the Kansas Courts is to guarantee the “rule of law” to every citizen, regardless of wealth or position of power.  The decision-making of the appellate courts is seen only through written opinions. Interviews with former Supreme Court Justices, judges and others involved in the court system will illuminate this indispensable and often misunderstood part of the policy process.  Interviews of other legislators who chaired the House and Senate Judiciary committees can be found in Statehouse Conversations.

Interview of Carol Beier, November 23, 2022

Interviewed by Richard Ross
Beier's interview explained how the judicial branch of government operates, showing how cases get to the Supreme Court and that the justices can only consider facts framed by the parties and their counsel. They don't "Google" for extra facts. They stay in the bounds of the facts as framed by the case. Beier is also an advocate for merit selection of judges and makes the case that merit selection is the most appropriate method. She gave examples of how retention elections operate. She told a story about a friend living in New York Show MoreCity who asked the question, "What do people do in Kansas?" The answer was "Everything important in life." Beier connected that response to her conclusion: A strong, healthy, supported Judiciary that understands it role and performs it well is part of "everything important in life." Show Less

Interview of Patrick Brazil, September 11, 2023

Interviewed by Richard Ross
This interview focused on the role of the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals and the relationship of the intermediate appellate court to the state supreme court. In 1977 when the court composition was revised, it served in panels of three judges, traveling to hear cases statewide. In 1996 the number of appeals had grown to over 2,000. The interview discussed the appointment of the Chief Judge, caseloads, the philosophy of the judges and how they managed the work. The passage of the sentencing guidelines created what they described as a "Blitz Docket". Show More There is also discussion of the utilization of a Judicial Nominating Commission and how that process worked. The COVID pandemic also forced changes upon this particular court.-- primarily stopping its travel and using Zoom and video calls instead. Show Less

Interview of Lee Johnson, May 22, 2023

Interviewed by Jim Concannon and Richard Ross
Retired Supreme Court Justice Lee Johnson is interviewed by his law school professor, Jim Concannon and colleague, Richard Ross about his career as an appellate judge on both the Court of Appeals and the Kansas Supreme Court. Justice Johnson's path to the Supreme Court was a little different than most who served. He was a small town lawyer, a mayor and businessman from rural Kansas. He was appointed first by a Republican governor to the Court of Appeals; then by a Democrat governor to the Supreme Court. The diversity of cases in his legal practice Show Morewas a positive. The interview clearly describes how the Court of Appeals functions, and how the appointment of several judges from that court to the Supreme Court influenced how they decided cases. The role of dissents was discussed to point out their importance to the decision process. Upon his retirement, Johnson returned to Caldwell where he was born. Show Less

Interview of Ed Larson, November 4, 2022

Interviewed by Richard Ross
This interview of longtime Kansas lawyer and jurist, the Honorable Ed Larson, gives a clear understanding of the workings of both Kansas Court of Appeals and the Kansas Supreme Court. Joining the appellate court in 1987 as a general practice lawyer exposed him to many more criminal cases than he had seen in his practice in Hays. He liked the court's practice of traveling around the state for hearings. Larson believed that solving the problems of individuals was the most important work they did, although there were many high-profile cases such as the sale of Blue Cross Show MoreBlue Shield to an out-state company. Larson is a supporter of merit selection for judges and credits the availability of the retirement system for judges with allowing judges to retire with dignity and benefits. Show Less
Chief Justice Lawton Nuss

Interview of Lawton Nuss, July 27, 2022

Interviewed by Richard Ross
Retired Chief Justice Lawton Nuss describes his attempts to be appointed to the Court of Appeals (he was not) and to the Supreme Court. Nuss served as Acting Chief during the illness of Chief Justice Davis. After becoming Chief Justice in 2010 he became the chief spokesman and administrator for the entire judicial branch of nearly 1600 employees and 250 judges. In 2014-15 he appointed a Court Budget Advisory committee to help resolve an eight million dollar budget shortfall. He discussed at length the legislative reaction to the Gannon v State school finance case which was Show Morefiled in 2010 and not finally resolved until 2019. Nuss describes his work with the conservative leadership in the state legislature, and a conservative governor, and their attempts to gain more control over the courts. He dealt with budget shortfalls that resulted in closing the courts; attempts to elect rather than appoint judges; and threats to change the role of the courts in the constitution. Nuss was a vigorous defender of the judicial system's independence against legislative interference. He cited the Supreme Court’s Solomon case which essentially answered the question, "‘Should the judicial branch have to give away some of its power granted directly by the people in their Constitution in order to get funding from the legislature.” The court's decisions on school finance continued to provoke the legislature during his tenure. Show Less

Interview of Thomas (Tim) Owens, October 14, 2022

Interviewed by Nancy Parrish
Owens described his career path from military officer to private attorney to city council member to the state legislature. He served seven years in the Kansas House and then ran for the Kansas Senate where he chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee. Owens recounts the pressure from Governor Brownback to change the merit selection procedure for judges, making them elected. Also, the education bills were now being sent to the Judiciary committee because of lawsuits and that also caused friction because of the court's decisions on resolving the Montoy and Gannon cases. Owens also dealt with Show Morea death penalty bill which failed 20-20. He described frequent trips "across the street" carrying messages between the Chief Justice and the Governor's office. He lost his bid for reelection to the Senate in 2012 and ended up teaching at Johnson County Community College and retired from the military as a full colonel. He even served a year as municipal judge in Lenexa. Show Less

Interview of Richard Ross, March 13, 2024

Interviewed by Eric Rosen
Richard Ross, from 1978 to 2016 served as the Reporter of Decisions of the Kansas Appellate Courts, a constitutional office. He edited over 132 volumes, 81 Kansas Reports and 51 Kansas Court of Appeals Reports in his 39-year career. Appearing in the Kansas Supreme Court conference room, Supreme Court Justice Eric Rosen interviewed Ross, who described in detail the processes he used to publish the Reports. When he started, there were no computers, just typewriters to create the courts' opinions. During Ross' early years as Reporter, the court moved from the Capitol, across the street into Show Morethe Judicial Building. As technology advance, the process of creating the Reports changed, but also the volume of work increased. The interview gives an insight into the inner workings of the Court and its judges/justices. It also chronicles the community work that Ross does, fund-raising for the renovation of Constitution Hall in Topeka with Friends of the Free State Capitol and serving on the Washburn University Foundation Board of Trustees. Show Less

Interview of Howard Schwartz, April 25, 2023

Interviewed by Richard Walker
Howard Schwartz credits Wilt Chamberlain for encouraging him to leave Philadelphia and come to Kansas to college. Then Jim James asked him to set up a system to manage personnel in 110 courts and 105 counties. Schwartz spent the next 32 years managing change within the Kansas courts as the judicial administrator. The interview covers court unification, the management of court dockets, the creation of child support guidelines, and the evolving relationship among courts and its judges over how the system is administered. Schwartz developed a special friendship with Justice Kay McFarland who asked him and Show Morehis wife, Elaine to assist with the disposition of her estate when she died. Dr. Schwartz wrote an article for the Kansas Bar Association publication about Chief Justice McFarland which is also available for download at the end of his interview. Show Less

Remembering Chief Justice Kay McFarland — Interview of Elaine Schwartz, April 25, 2023

Interviewed by Joan Wagnon
This short conversation with Elaine Schwartz, former legislator and Topeka city council person describes her friendship with Justice Kay McFarland and how Schwartz became trustee for McFarland's estate. The estate benefitted the Topeka Zoo and specifically, the Asian garden named for Justice McFarland. Justice Kay McFarland was the first woman appointed to the Kansas Supreme Court and the first Chief Justice. Her career and life story can be found at this link:

Interview of Fred Six, December 4, 2021

Interviewed by Richard Ross and Deanell Tacha
This oral history interview of retired Supreme Justice Fred N. Six is the first of a series of interviews of retired justices, judges and court personnel to examine the Kansas judicial branch. In the interview Justice Six recounts his career as Judge of the Court of Appeals and Justice of the Kansas Supreme Court, reviewing changes in procedure that took place during his years on the courts and topics of litigation the courts reviewed. Six's explanation of how the Supreme Court operates is clear and interesting, especially as he discussed the "growing pains" brought about from the Show More"IT Revolution." He described precedent-setting opinions and the process of writing a dissent. A discussion of the medical malpractice issues highlighted the tension between the courts and the legislature when new policy is adopted. After Justice Six left the bench, he was asked to work with the Senate and House Judiciary committees to alter the Merit Selection plan of judges. work which was ongoing until 2011. The interview concludes with him stating that his greatest takeaway from his years of service was the establishment in 1992 of the Lawyers Fund for Client Protection. Show Less

Interview of Deanell Tacha, April 12, 2023

Interviewed by Jim Concannon
Jim Concannon skillfully guides retired Judge Tacha through an interview that probes her background, reasons for becoming a lawyer, and then a judge of the United States Court of Appeals, and her career in public service as an administrator and professor of law. Tacha spoke about how women were treated in law school and in her early law practice. She advocated for the advancement of women in law and the workplace. Tacha credits Bob Dole for her nomination to the Court of Appeals. She compares the federal system of selecting judges with the Kansas merit selection Show Moresystem and prefers the Kansas nonpartisan system. Her explanation of how the federal judiciary is organized is clear and instructive, especially as to what kinds of cases they hear. She relates an interesting story about her trip to Albania to assist with developing a new constitution for the country, discusses her experience as Dean of the Law School at Pepperdine University and closes with a plea for "thoughtful, civilized discourse". Show Less

Interview of John Vratil, September 13, 2022

Interviewed by Joan Wagnon and David Heinemann
Senator John Vratil served 14 years in the Kansas Senate, chairing the Judiciary committee 8 of those years and serving as Senate Vice-President for 10 years. Vratil was a leader in the Senate on both education issues as well as judiciary issues. He served on the Judicial Council helping the courts coordinate policy initiatives with the Administration and Legislature. He discusses the change in the power structure of the Senate, from "moderate Republican to Right Wing Conservative." He cites medicaid expansion as one example of a popular issue with the public, but not with the new "right-wing" Show Moreconservative majority. He comments the declining number of lawyers in both the Senate and House may be due to the low salaries. Show Less

Interview of Richard Walker, December 2, 2022

Interviewed by Nancy Parrish
Richard Walker's interview shows the human side of being a judge for 30 years in his hometown of Newton. After a brief foray into politics while fresh out of law school and the private practice of law, Walker found his niche on the bench in his hometown of Newton/Harvey County. His descriptions of a group of young Republican lawmakers organizing to elect Wendell Lady as Speaker are interesting. Walker became disillusioned about the parole board practices during his service there but saw a way as a judge to look for creative, flexible alternatives to Show Moreresolving domestic situations and preventing children from being damaged in the process. In 2015 he moved to senior judge status and worked with the Court of Appeals, largely because "he had had it with domestic cases." Show Less

Interview of Ronald Wurtz, April 18, 2023

Interviewed by Nancy Parrish
Ron Wurtz always wanted to be a lawyer. He chose Washburn University because they had a law school and a ROTC program. He had interned with District Attorney Gene Olander as a law student, and after 4 years as an Air Force JAG, he returned to work as an assistant district attorney in Topeka before becoming a public defender in 1979. Wurtz's interview covers several interesting topics--the death penalty, which he has always opposed, and sentencing guidelines, which he originally supported and later opposed. He discusses several of the cases he had. More recently, he has worked on Show Morethe Expungement Project and now teaches at the Washburn University Law Clinic. Occasionally he has also served as a pro tem judge. Show Less
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