By Robert A. Vella
America’s founding fathers adopted the separation of powers concept in building a new nation as a means to limiting abuses of political power through a system of structural checks and balances. The three branches of the federal government (legislative, executive, and judicial), which schoolchildren learn (or should learn) at an early age, provides the most common understanding of this concept. The organization of U.S. state governments generally follow this precedent also.
Historically, Americans have had a great aversion towards monarchs, dictators, and other forms of concentrated authoritarian power. These are antithetical to democracy and to the rule of law, and through their actions, inevitably validate Lord Acton’s profound maxim that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” However, due to circumstance and intent, America has been steadily moving towards authoritarianism in recent years spearheaded by the leadership of its two major political parties. The Democratic Party, under President Obama, has accepted the police-state tactics of the U.S. intelligence community implemented during preceding administrations, and has fully embraced a corporatist, technocratic approach to international trade and geopolitics. The Republican Party, despite its libertarian leanings, has become fervently anti-democratic in the 21st century, dominated by plutocrats, theocrats, warmongers, and xenophobes.
And, there is no state in the union where this right-wing extremist GOP has been more active than Kansas. Led by governor Sam Brownback, the Republican Party has been aggressively trying to reshape the Sunflower State in the image of the radical Tea Party – where wealth is concentrated in a corporate elite, where Christian fundamentalism determines social policy, where militarized law enforcement controls the impoverished masses unchallenged, and where white privilege forms the basis of a stratified social hierarchy.
But, Brownback’s agenda has been stymied time after time by an independent Kansas Supreme Court which has overturned or restricted much of the dogmatic legislative bills passed by Republicans. Frustrated, though undeterred, Brownback and his obedient GOP-dominated state legislature chose to do what all authoritarians do when their agenda is blocked by an external force – undermine that force by weakening or destroying it.
Attorney General Derrick Schmidt informed the courts today that the ruling in the Solomon case could have some negative financial results for the Kansas Judicial system. Chief Justice Solomon had argued that the legislative change, which strips the Kansas Supreme Court of administrative authority over district courts, is unconstitutional and violates the separation of powers doctrine.
Judge Hendricks, persuaded by Justice Solomon’s attorney Pedro Irigonegaray, ruled that the administrative change violated the balance of power in the Kansas constitution. Once that ruling came down, the Kansas legal system began to spin.
In a statement released on the Kansas Attorney General website, Attorney General Schmidt made the situation clear:
“We are carefully reviewing the district court’s decision to determine next steps. My immediate concern, however, is that the court does not appear to have decided the validity of a ‘nonseverability’ clause contained in a later statute, which means today’s decision could effectively and immediately shut off all funding for the judicial branch of state government. Therefore, I intend to file tomorrow a formal request for the court to delay its decision to avoid this result. It is critical to keep the state judiciary operating.”
Kansas Republicans have called for these administrative changes in the selection and potential removal of judges from the Kansas court system. These structural changes in the selection process were directly linked to verdicts on many issues – from abortion to schools – that put an end to many of the conservative Republican legislative goals.
In an effort to make the courts a rubber stamp, the Kansas legislature enacted rule changes to the process of judicial selection. Judge Hendricks, however, found these changes put the courts at the mercy of the legislature, rather than treating them as an equal body of government.
There are tremendous battles being waged in American today, largely unseen by the general public, between ruthless authoritarians and the defenders of democracy… and our side is losing.