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Retiring Chief Justice Lawton Nuss Reflects On Time On Kansas Supreme Court

Nomin Ujiyediin
Kansas News Service/File Photo
Retiring Chief Justice Lawton Nuss attends Gov. Laura Kelly's inauguration in January. He's stepping down this week after almost 20 years on the Kansas Supreme Court.

When he was a high school senior in Salina, Lawton Nuss said he had no idea what he wanted to do with his future.

"My government teacher, who had also been the assistant debate coach that year, said he thought that I might be good at the law because it called for reading a lot of material and analyzing it and then writing it, and then also conveying it and orally making arguments," Nuss recalled.

"And I thought, 'Well, gee, I had never thought about that.'"

Nuss earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Kansas on a Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps scholarship. After four years as an officer in the Marine Corps, he returned to Lawrence to attend KU’s law school using the GI Bill.

After practicing law for 20 years in Salina, he was appointed to the Kansas Supreme Court in 2002 by Republican Gov. Bill Graves. He became chief justice in 2010.

Nuss announced earlier this year he would retire this week after more than 17 years on the court. Although he was prohibited from discussing past court decisions or current cases, Nuss did talk about his battle for better pay for employees in the judicial branch, the encroachment of politics on the judiciary and his retirement plans during a recent interview at KMUW.

Interview highlights

The questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.

As chief justice, you have worked to increase pay for court employees and judges. I read that Kansas ranks last in the country in judiciary pay or right near the bottom anyway. Where are we currently at on the state of pay in the judicial system for judges?

You're correct. Last year we were ranked dead last in the country for what we pay our district court judges, the judges you would have here in Sedgwick County for example. This year, after a pay raise from the legislature this past session, we're now next to last. We're ahead of West Virginia. Our appellate judges are in similar straits; I think in the mid-40s. We're 39th for our court of appeals, which sounds fantastic until you realize there are only 40 court of appeals in the United States.

And what we're trying to do this year with the legislature once again is to say we don't want to be first, we don't have to be fifth. What we do want to have is to be treated equally to our neighboring states, which have been Nebraska, Missouri, Oklahoma and Colorado. And so we are asking for that amount of money to be given for this upcoming fiscal year to bring us up to just the average adjusted salary of those four states, what they pay their trial judges, and that would be about $7 million … in additional funds for judicial pay.

Why the hesitancy do you think about judicial pay? Is it just a strictly budgetary thing? Are there other issues involved?

Well, I think it's kind of like a marble cake. There are a number of issues that are all intertwined. One of them is there hasn't been a whole lot of money in the state of Kansas to do much of anything for awhile. A lot of people and agencies and branches of government are competing for limited pie. We have been told by some legislators that the judicial branch is just a lower priority for us even though we're an equal branch of government. We also had a legislator tell us that, ‘Well, I understand you're ranked dead last in the country on pay, but, you know, somebody has to be last.’

What concerns me is that I look at somebody from Oklahoma and say, ‘Do you really put a higher value on justice in Oklahoma than we do in Kansas cause you're paying your judges more money?’

It seemed like forever that the judicial branch was politically independent and above the fray of politics. Now the politics of the country are sort of being pushed toward the judiciary. Can you talk about that trend?

It's a topic that I discuss with my counterparts across the country when we have our annual conference in the summer. It is not a Kansas thing. But I will say that a number of my counterparts in the last few years at our conference have come up to me and basically said, ‘Thank you, Kansas judicial branch, for standing up for the rule of law and not buckling under to these pressures.’ And their concern has been that if it works in Kansas, in other words, the Supreme Court gets bullied or browbeaten and we do what the general population wants us to do or what another branch of government wants to do, that if that is successful in Kansas, that's going to spread to their states. And so they have been very concerned about what happens in Kansas, and they'd been keeping a very close eye on it.

Is it difficult personally when the court makes a decision that the general public may disagree with … You follow the law, you render a verdict and then you get castigated in the court of public opinion and on social media, of course. Is that difficult personally, or do you develop a thick skin at some point?

It is just something that comes with the job. People are exercising their freedom of speech, freedom of expression under the First Amendment (of) the constitution. And what's a little bit ironic is when they want those rights enforced, they come to the Supreme Court or Kansas courts. And so we are enforcing their right to be criticizing us. There was the irony there, isn't there?

What's your proudest moment on the court?

I used to think it was a case that I was involved in that went to the U.S. Supreme Court. But in the last few years, I've really said what I'm proudest of is the entire judicial branch. The way all of our people have said, ‘We know are underpaid. We know we're underappreciated. But we're here to serve the people of Kansas.’ They think this is very important work, and they're willing to put up with a lot in order to provide justice to Kansans.

When you leave the bench … you have indicated you're going to work with veterans. Explain why that's important to you to get involved in that.

All four of my uncles were veterans. My father was a veteran. I'm a veteran; my middle son is a veteran. And so I guess I come by an interest in veterans affairs naturally.

My generation, the Vietnam-era generation, we were not welcomed when we left active duty, and we still have some Vietnam vets who are suffering as a result. So I want to help those folks. My wife wants to help them as well, and we want to have that spread to any veteran, even the really younger folks.

You are involved at a national level trying to get more veterans treatment courts established. Explain what those are.

A veterans treatment court exists for veterans who have been diagnosed by the veterans administration ... to show that there is a connection between the veteran’s military service and what led them to commit some crime and that then makes them eligible for veterans treatment court. Basically they come into the courtroom, and they are assigned a fellow veteran as their mentor and then the judge has a very intensive supervision program for them. If the veteran goes through that program and graduates, then in some states, they dismiss the charges at that time.

What I think is important there is that if you have a diagnosis that says your service to your country is the reason you're in this criminal problem, then I think we should be doing something to help those veterans.

In your resignation letter to Gov. Laura Kelly, you included. “Barbara and I have decided that I will resign my position in December.” Why did you phrase it that way and include your wife?

When I first came to the court 17 years ago, I got a biography of a former U.S. Supreme Court justice, Byron White, otherwise known as Whizzer White. .. And one thing that really struck me in the book is that when Justice White made his (retirement) announcement to the people in the Supreme Court building, he put it in terms of ‘Marion and I,’ his wife.

It just struck me as that makes complete sense because the spouses who are married to, in this case a chief justice or a justice or a judge, they are just as much involved in that as the judge himself or herself.

They don't help us with cases, but you know, they're the ones who put up with their spouse being gone for long periods of time or working 80 or 90 hour work week sometimes or having to cancel some family plans because work has interfered, and it's very hard on them. And I just wanted people to know that I appreciate what she did.

Is there something I haven't asked you that you'd like to talk about or mention or make note of?

One thing that we do try to emphasize in the court system is what's called procedural fairness. And I know everybody when they go to court wants to win. But the research has shown that the most important thing for people is to think that they have been treated fairly. They may lose their case, but if the judge and the clerk of the court or the probation officer or the court reporter or whatever personnel they have contact with in the judicial branch and think they had been treated with respect and they had been treated fairly, then that to them was about 90 percent of what they want. And so that's something that we've tried to stress in the judicial branch.

Thomas Jefferson had said that the most sacred duty of government is to do equal and impartial justice to all its citizens. So we shouldn't care where somebody came from or what the color of their skin is or whether they have a lot of money or no money, what their gender is. It’s just the law tries to be impartial here, and we want to treat you just as fairly as we can.

Tom Shine is the director of news and public affairs. Follow him on Twitter @thomaspshine. To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.

Tom joined KMUW in 2017 after spending 37 years with The Wichita Eagle where he held a variety of reporting and editing roles. He also is host of The Range, KMUW’s weekly show about where we live and the people who live here. Tom is a board member of the Public Media Journalists Association, serving as small station representative, a volunteer coach for League 42 and an adjunct instructor in the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University.