The state’s top judicial official said Tuesday that courts in Kansas are rebounding well to the aftershocks of COVID-19-induced changes, with a backlog of cases mostly resolved.
In her address to the legislature on the state of the Kansas judiciary, Marla Luckert, chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court, praised the resiliency of the court system in the face of the virus.
It was the first time a woman has given the annual speech and it comes at a key juncture for the state’s judiciary, as the system will again be tested by skyrocketing COVID-19 cases across Kansas in the face of the omicron variant.
This has prompted some areas to close municipal courts and Luckert said at least two of the state’s judicial districts had paused jury trials again.
But while there was once a backlog of over 5,000 criminal cases statewide, Luckert told reporters only a few geographic areas still lag behind, generally ones that saw high rates of COVID-19 transmission affect jury participation.
During the 2021 fiscal year, the courts resolved more than 31,000 criminal cases, though that number is a fraction of those handled during a pre-pandemic year.
“Generally, our courts across the state report they do not have a backlog of cases,” Luckert said after her address. “They are moving forward as they would have in handling their cases. We do have a few spots in the state that have work to do to dispose of those cases.”
Lawmakers approved last year a law suspending the state’s statutory requirement that a defendant be granted a speedy trial until 2023 in a bid to help clear the backlog. Rep. Fred Patton, R-Topeka, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said he was satisfied with the judicial system’s progress on that front.
“I think they are making big strides to getting caught back up,” he said. “That’s what we were worried about — would they ever get caught back up? And they’re doing that.”
The arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine brought a modified version of normalcy that allowed courts to catch up, including the resumption of jury trials throughout the state.
“But new variants and the waxing and waning nature of the virus required the judicial branch to repeatedly adapt to the continually changing conditions,” Luckert said in her address.
In the face of omicron, the supreme court will issue an update to COVID-19 mitigation guidelines in the coming days.
“We continue to issue guidance — but it is only guidance,” Luckert said, adding judicial districts should continue to work with local health departments to determine what makes sense for their community.
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COVID-19 prompted an embrace of new technology, even beyond the virtual hearings that became commonplace in courts across Kansas. Apps were developed to help residents determine how to pay traffic tickets and individuals seeking protection from abuse orders can now be filed online.
And Luckert also praised legislators for investments in the judicial system, including a pay raise for judicial employees in a bid to counter longstanding hiring difficulties for courts across Kansas.
But she said more investment remained necessary.
That included shifting the judicial branch’s reliance on court fees, something Luckert said created unpredictability. Judicial officials instead want fee dollars to be earmarked for the general fund, in exchange for a more stable funding source.
And the courts are asking legislators to consider funding over a dozen new district judgeships, 10 new magistrate judgeships and support staff, as new judge positions have not been added in nearly 15 years.
Those needs were especially acute in larger and medium-sized counties.
“Currently, workloads in some parts of the state far exceed judicial capacity and the need for more judges and staff is great,” Luckert said in her address.
Legislators should also continue to ensure judicial employee salaries are competitive, she said, pointing to an example of a judge departing to work in another state. The judicial branch did not request any new pay raises.
Luckert told reporters she was “optimistic” that legislators would respond favorably to her request and members said they would weigh the new funding asks.
“They appear to need additional resources in certain areas and we need to look at that and figure out if that is something we can do,” Patton said.
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Andrew Bahl is a senior statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at [email protected] or by phone at 443-979-6100.