What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Governor Sam Brownback Threatened to Defund the Judiciary If It Rules Against a Law He Favors

Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas

Governor Sam Brownback
of Kansas

By Elaine Magliaro

Things just keep getting worse in the state of Kansas thanks to the policies and political actions of its governor Sam Brownback. Steve Benen of MSNBC said, “If the spectacular failures of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s (R) economic experiment, and the ensuing budget crisis, were the only stories dominating the state, it would be more than enough to put the Sunflower State on national front pages.” He added that “recent developments in Kansas go much, much further.” A recent Kansas development that is getting quite a bit of press coverage is Brownback’s threat to defund the judiciary in his state  if it rules against a law that he favors.

Mark Joseph Stern of Slate reported on Monday that Brownback signed a bill last Thursday “that threatens the entire state’s judiciary with destruction if it rules against a law he favors.” Stern said that the Kansas governor “has spent much of his tenure attempting to curb the state supreme court and consolidate power in the executive branch.” He added that “Thursday’s startling maneuver suggests the deeply conservative governor has no compunction about simply obliterating separation of powers when another branch of government gets in his way.”

According to Stern, the trouble with the judiciary “started in 2014, when the state supreme court ruled that the disparity between school funding in rich and poor districts violated the state constitution.” He said that the justices ordered the legislature to fix the problem. Stern added, “Soon after, the legislature passed an administrative law that stripped the supreme court of its authority to appoint local chief judges and set district court budgets. (Instead, district court judges—who are often quite conservative—were allowed to elect their own chief judge.)”


Arriving shortly after the school funding ruling, this law was widely seen as a retaliation against the court—and a warning. In their first ruling, the justices stopped short of declaring that the school system as a whole was constitutionally underfunded. But the court acknowledged that it would one day answer that question. And if the justices mandate more school funding, the legislature will have to raise taxes, a step few legislators are eager to take.

Stern said that the administrative law “was likely an effort to scare the court out of issuing a dramatic ruling in favor of greater school funding.” But Brownback and the legislature didn’t stop at that. They also reportedly “threatened the justices with blatantly political reforms, like subjecting them to recall elections, splitting the court in two, lowering the retirement age, and introducing partisan elections.”

John Eligon  also noted in a New York Times article on Saturday that the fight between Brownback and the state’s judicial branch had escalated, “with the governor last week signing into law a bill that could strip state courts of their funding.”


The measure, at the end of a lengthy bill that allocated money for the judiciary this year, stipulates that if a state court strikes down a 2014 law that removed some powers from the State Supreme Court, the judiciary will lose its funding.

The 2014 law took the authority to appoint chief judges for the district courts away from the Supreme Court and gave it to the district courts themselves. It also deprived the state’s highest court of the right to set district court budgets. Critics said the law was an attempt by Mr. Brownback, a Republican, to stack the district courts with judges who may be more favorable to his policies.

Eligon said that the bill Brownback signed last Thursday “was related only to the judiciary. He said the Kansas governor “wanted to ensure that the courts would remain open while lawmakers sparred over the larger budget issues.” Lawmakers have been trying to figure out a way “to fill a $400 million shortfall, which will most likely require tax increases that Mr. Brownback and many in the conservative-dominated Legislature oppose.”

Eligon added that “in passing a separate budget bill to keep the third branch of government from shutting down, Republican lawmakers took the opportunity to insert language that would shield the 2014 law.”


“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Matthew Menendez, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York, which is helping to represent a Kansas judge who is challenging the constitutionality of the 2014 law. “It seems pretty clear that these mechanisms have been an effort by the governor and the Legislature to try and get a court system that is more in line with their philosophy.”

Eligon said that Richard E. Levy, a constitutional law professor at the University of Kansas, “likened the measure in the judiciary budget bill to Congress’s passing a law outlawing abortion and then telling the judicial branch that it will lose its funding if it finds the law unconstitutional.” Levy was quoted as saying, “That kind of threat to the independence of the judiciary strikes me as invalid under the separation of powers principle.”


Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback Threatens to Defund Judiciary if It Rules Against Him

‘What’s the matter with Kansas?’ gains new urgency (MSNBC)

Courts Budget Intensifies Kansas Dispute Over Powers (New York Times)


This entry was posted in Conservatives, Courts, Democracy, Jurisprudence, Kansas, Neoconservatives, Political Science, Politics, States, United States and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Governor Sam Brownback Threatened to Defund the Judiciary If It Rules Against a Law He Favors

  1. bigfatmike says:

    Looks like there is another conservative governor who does not like government interfering with our lives … except when it interferes with the courts. Then it is ok if the government does what ever it wants.

  2. rafflaw says:

    Brownback, like Walker is struggling to find a way to blame someone else for the utter failures of his cut programs for the poor and give tax breaks to the wealthy and corporations. Of course, they now have to raise taxes to correct their errors. But guess who is getting the biggest tax increases?

    • bigfatmike says:

      “But guess who is getting the biggest tax increases?”

      This is a trick question… right?

      Where is Prof Laffer now that we really need him.

    • bigfatmike says:

      “But guess who is getting the biggest tax increases?”

      OK, now I think I got it figured out.

      Brownback kept his promise to lower income taxes. Now the tricks get to pay higher sales

      It all balances out… as long as you cut $400 million in essential spending and let everybody home school. What could be more responsible than that?

  3. pete says:

    Somewhere Dorothy is clicking her heels together and saying “Please take me back to Oz”, “Please take me back to Oz”, “Please take me back to Oz”.

  4. blouise says:

    Kansas wanted him. He’s their problem. Such stupidity deserves no sympathy.

  5. Mike Spindell says:

    What many in the mainstream media miss in stories like this is that the Tea Party Republicans do not want to live under our Constitution. They are probably the most dangerously radical group to have any power in United States history and if they succeed in their ultimate plans the whole notion of the Bill of Rights and Constitutional government will be a mere memory. They really want to set up a theocracy that would be on par with any in the Mid East..They are treasonous and ignorant of our country’s history.

    Please remember that at one point Brownback was identified in the national media as “mainstream”. He makes Huey Long seem like an idealist.

  6. bigfatmike says:

    Lets not forget Norquist: ” I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”

    It took some of us a while to figure these guys out. For too long we gave them credit for being responsible fiscal conservatives. But there is nothing responsible about reducing taxes then claiming deficits are a problem. It is a ploy. It is a way to sabotage government.

    And most recently their contempt for our democratic institutions has been revealed. They don’t care about the right to vote, they don’t care about checks and balances. They only care about their own view.

    However, I don’t think rank and file Tea Party are the real problem. On the contrary I see them as dupes, manipulated with lip service to their ideals by the power brokers of the far right wing movement.

  7. po says:

    I don’t scare easily, but I must say, I am freaking out.
    What is happening in this country is blowing my mind. This nation is being hijacked before our eyes and I am losing more and more hope than we can ever fix the problem.
    Worse yet, the issues we are facing are so various, so numerous and so insidious yet systematic, so stubbornly ideological that there is no hope we can ever successfully address them all.
    Worse yet, we can no longer debate ideas, for it is apparent to me that people no longer understand one another even when they are able to hear one another.
    As we fear ISIS as the greatest threat to humanity, I watch conservatives speak of the “left” in ways that shock the hell out of me.
    One of the rules of the universe is that any force at play on the macro/outer, is also at play in the micro/inner. I knew that whatever we did to others internationally, we would do to ourselves domestically…that the waging war upon others will lead to our waging war upon ourselves, as seen in the over-militarization of our police and its turning against our citizens.

    TomDispatch has an article today that exemplifies it, with a parallel between Iraq and Michigan, Paul Brenner and Rick Snyder…

    “They say that imperial wars come home in all sorts of ways. Think of the Michigan that TomDispatch regular Laura Gottesdiener describes today as one curious example of that dictum. If you remember, in the spring of 2003, George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of that country’s autocratic ruler, Saddam Hussein. The invasion was launched with a “shock-and-awe” air show that was meant to both literally and figuratively “decapitate” the country’s leadership, from Saddam on down. At that time, there was another more anodyne term for the process that was also much in use, even if it has now faded from our vocabularies: “regime change.” And you remember how that all worked out, don’t you? A lot of Iraqi civilians — but no Iraqi leaders — were killed in shock-and-awe fashion that first night of the invasion and, as most Americans recall now that we’re in Iraq War 3.0, it didn’t get much better when the Bush administration’s proconsul in Baghdad, L. Paul Bremer III, disbanded the Iraqi military and Saddam’s Baathist Party (a brilliant formula for launching an instant insurgency), appointed his own chosen rulers in Baghdad, and gave the Americans every sort of special privilege imaginable by curiously autocratic decree in the name of spreading democracy in the Middle East.

    It now seems that a version of regime change, Iraqi-style, has come home to roost in parts of Michigan — but with a curious twist. Think of Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, as the L. Paul Bremer of that state. He’s essentially given himself regime-change-style powers, impermeable to a statewide recall vote, and begun dismissing — or, if you will, decapitating — the local governments of cities and school districts, appointing managers in their place. In other words, his homegrown version of regime change involves getting rid of local democracy and putting individual autocrats in power instead. What, you might ask yourself, could possibly go wrong, especially since the governor himself is going national to limn the glories of his version of austerity and autocratic politics?

    As it happens, TomDispatch dispatched our ace reporter, Laura Gottesdiener, who has been traveling the underside of American life for this site, to check out what regime change in Michigan really looks like. As with all her reports, this time with photographer Eduardo García, she offers a grim but startling vision of where this country may be headed. ”

  8. Mike Spindell says:

    “However, I don’t think rank and file Tea Party are the real problem. On the contrary I see them as dupes, manipulated with lip service to their ideals by the power brokers of the far right wing movement.”


    I totally agree. This is an entire manipulated movement.The “Tea Party” was an artificial creation as I wrote about its history first in 2011 at RIL and then a follow up in 2013 at RIL as well. I’m going to bring those two posts back here because the America we live in has a short memory and our corporate media has made this artificially created movement into an iconic “revolt of the ordinary people.

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