Know Your Courts
The Judicial Branch
Like the U.S. Constitution, the Kansas Constitution distributes governmental power and responsibility among three separate branches of government: legislative, executive, and judicial.
The legislative branch debates and creates laws and policies. The executive branch carries out and enforces the laws created by the legislative branch. The judicial branch interprets and applies the law to resolve legal issues under the facts applicable to each case.
This system provides checks and balances to ensure that our legal and constitutional rights cannot be overridden by any one person, political party, special interest group or governmental authority. Two hundred and fifty years ago, Alexander Hamilton said: “There is no liberty if the power of judging not be separated from the legislative and executive powers.”
Role of the Courts
The American system of justice employs an adversary approach to resolving most legal issues. This means a judge or jury must decide between two competing points of view in each case, with the plaintiff on one side and the defendant on the other.
Within this adversary system the judicial branch is responsible for hearing two basic types of cases: criminal and civil. A criminal case arises when a person is accused by the government prosecutor of violating laws that prohibit certain conduct, such as robbery or murder. The accused person is the defendant.
The other type of case, a civil case, comes to the courts when one party, the plaintiff, believes its legal rights have been violated by another party, the defendant, and sues to have the court enforce its rights. Examples of civil cases are claims that a person has suffered bodily injury through the wrongful act of another person, or that a contract has been broken by one of the parties to the contract.
Not all cases are adversarial. For example, the courts work to protect children by reuniting a child with its parents, placing a child in foster care, or approving the adoption of a child. In 2013, Kansas families adopted 1,847 children. Among many other duties, judges also oversee the probate of estates of deceased persons, and determine whether a person is in need of a guardian or conservator.
Courts do not create the cases they hear. In every instance judges are intended to be the impartial umpires of alleged criminal charges, civil disputes, or other legal matters that are brought to court by interested parties. Because many people are accused of crimes or have unresolved civil disputes, the courts are involved in a great many areas of our lives and our communities.
For example, in 2013 there were 5,811 civil justice cases in Kansas such as small claims, 92,233 debt collection cases, and an incredible number of other legal issues resolved, including personal injury, employment cases, reviews of government agency actions, and landlord/tenant disputes. The sworn duty of the courts is to provide fair and impartial rulings based on the facts, the laws, and the Kansas and United States Constitutions. Each day, these decisions affect the lives of thousands of Kansans.
The Kansas Constitution is the direct mandate of the people of Kansas, and only the people can change it. A fundamental role of the courts is to interpret and apply the law and ultimately to determine if a law is constitutional when it is challenged by one of the parties to the case. The Kansas Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of Kansas laws when a party raises the issue on appeal from a lower court.
Likewise, the U.S. Supreme Court applies the U.S. Constitution at the national level in cases appealed through the federal court system. That system is completely separate from the courts of each of the states. One of the most significant federal cases started in federal court in Topeka as a dispute initiated by a family who wanted their black child to attend the local white schools. In the appeal of the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the U.S. Supreme Court held that separate but equal segregated schools were in violation of the U.S. Constitution, one of the most important cases in the history of the country.
This power of the courts to interpret and apply the law, and to determine the constitutionality of a law when asked to do so by a party, is fundamental to the protection of our individual rights. Our judicial system in Kansas is designed so the courts are an independent branch of government, and not subject to the daily political pressures that are applied to the legislative and executive branches.
Kansas Court Levels
Kansas Supreme Court: The Supreme Court is the highest court in Kansas. The Kansas Constitution gives the Supreme Court general administrative authority over all the courts in the state. The Court also supervises the legal profession, and serves as the state court of last resort in appeals from the Court of Appeals or the District Courts.
Kansas Court of Appeals: The Court of Appeals hears all appeals from the district courts except those that by law can be appealed directly to the Kansas Supreme Court, or which that Court elects to take.
Kansas District Courts: Kansas has 31 judicial districts consisting of one or more counties. Each county has a district court and a resident judge.
Municipal Courts: Municipal (city) courts deal with alleged violations of city ordinances committed within the city limits. The cases usually involve traffic and other minor offenses.
Kansas Supreme Court
The Supreme Court of the State of Kansas finds its origins and authority in Article 3 of the state Constitution. Judges of the court, called Justices, serve six-year terms. They may serve additional terms if approved by majority vote in a retention election.
The Kansas Supreme Court does not conduct a trial in which the parties appear and present evidence. Rather it makes its decisions based on the law that applies to the evidence developed in trial in the district court. Significant decisions of the Court are published in the Kansas Reports.
The Kansas Supreme Court’s judicial responsibilities include hearing direct appeals from the district courts in the most serious criminal cases, and appeals in any case in which a statute has been held to be unconstitutional. The court has the authority to review cases decided by the Kansas Court of Appeals and the ability to transfer cases to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The seven Kansas Supreme Court justices bring diverse backgrounds to the Court. The current justices were born in a variety of Kansas communities including Goodland, Kansas City, Salina, Topeka, El Dorado, and Caldwell. They have practiced virtually every type of law in a variety of positions including deputy attorney general, deputy district attorney, chief counsel to the governor, and elected county attorney.
Several of the justices have been in private law practice. One justice is a former Marine, another a journalist for the Associated Press, and a third a former member of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. One justice has a degree in art history. No matter their background, their religion, or their perspective, the job of the justices is to be committed to fair and impartial hearings and make legal decisions based on the U.S. and Kansas Constitutions and the laws applied to the facts of each case.
Meet our Justices
Kansas Court of Appeals
Unlike the Supreme Court, the Kansas Court of Appeals derives its authority entirely from statutes passed by the Legislature. Judges of the Court of Appeals serve four-year terms and may be retained for successive terms by public vote.
Like the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals judges do not conduct trials. They decide appealed cases by reading the trial record and written briefs filed by the parties, and hearing oral arguments of lawyers. They research and interpret the laws involved and write opinions that may be published in the bound volumes of the Kansas Court of Appeals Reports.
Meet the Judges
Kansas District Courts
District courts are created by the Kansas Constitution. They are the trial courts of Kansas, with general original jurisdiction over all civil and criminal cases, including divorce and domestic relations, damage suits, probate and administration of estates, guardianships, conservatorships, care of the mentally ill, juvenile matters, and small claims.
“A Government of Laws and not of Men,” said John Adams, our second President. The rule of law and the protection of individual rights within the rule of law are essential purposes of the judicial system.
History of the Courts
Kansas became a state on January 29, 1861, and the Kansas Constitution created a Supreme Court consisting of one chief justice and two associate justices elected to six-year terms from the state at large. Kansas’ population at that time was slightly more than 100,000.
In 1900, a constitutional amendment was approved by Kansas voters to increase the number of justices to seven—the same number as today. New rules adopted in 1903 did away with separate divisions in the court, and since then cases are heard by the entire court. In 1958, another constitutional amendment changed the justices’ selection process from a partisan election to an appointment process.
The Court of Appeals was re-established in 1977 as a seven-member intermediate appellate court. It was expanded to 10 members in 1987 and has 14 members today. Persons who lose their appeal at the Court of Appeals may petition the Kansas Supreme Court to review the court’s decision, but the Supreme Court is not required to do so.