Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton Nuss reflected Wednesday during his State of the Judiciary speech on the impact a specialty court had on a particular Kansas combat veteran.
The veteran, Donald Miller, recently graduated from a treatment program available through a behavioral health court. Specialty courts also handle drug and mental health needs, Nuss said, with a goal of avoiding incarceration or recurring problems.
Nuss told the story of how Miller held up a crisp $20 bill, crumpled it and observed the value was unchanged. Miller then made his point: No matter how life sullies our minds, souls and beliefs, human beings still have value.
"I really felt like, coming in as a combat veteran, I went from a hero to a zero," Miller said. "And I thought there was no way to ever get back to being a hero, whether it be in the eyes of society or in the eyes of my own wife and children."
Nuss described Miller as a life salvaged in the justice system, and those attending the speech in the supreme courtroom provided a standing ovation for the veteran.
In his eighth State of the Judiciary address, Nuss also highlighted work to assess municipal court fines in light of problems revealed by a federal audit of Ferguson, Mo., and a task force looking at pretrial detention practices.
"It is believed more than half of the people in our local jails are simply awaiting trial before their guilt or innocence has been determined," Nuss said. "We know that even short periods of pretrial detention can result in loss of a job, impacting not only a defendant but also his or her family."
Nuss promised not to dwell on the full list of financial concerns for the judicial branch of government — "that's meant to be an applause line," he joked — but he said Kansas now ranks dead last in judicial salaries among U.S. states and the District of Columbia. In 2007, judicial pay ranked 37th.
When a federal magistrate position recently opened in Topeka, Nuss said, 12 percent of the state's district judges applied for the job. The position pays 50 percent more than the rate of a district judge in Kansas and 200 percent more than a state magistrate.
Nuss is asking for an additional $20 million this year to increase compensation and add positions. In an interview after the speech, he said he was concerned about the number of judges who are leaving the bench to return to private practice.
Five years ago, he said, there would be 25 applicants for an open judicial seat. Now, the position might attract 10 inferior candidates.
“I just have concerns that if we have fewer people applying, and those people for the most part are not of the same quality we’ve expected over the years, then we’re going to see a drop in the quality of justice," Nuss said.
He said he has had conversations with legislators about his proposal, and some have said it will be a hard sale.
The speech was attended by Gov. Laura Kelly, House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, and other lawmakers. Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, didn't attend.
Nuss said this was the first time a governor turned out for his speech, and the first time a House speaker showed up since the speech moved from the Statehouse to the Supreme Court.
“As for other people who did not attend," Nuss said, "I can’t speculate as to why they did not, but I have a good relationship, I believe, with Speaker Ryckman and also the governor and the lieutenant governor and other people in the Legislature, and I don’t know why other people did not attend. It may have been the weather.”