A few weeks ago, I attended a CLE seminar as a means of keeping in the good graces of the Kansas Bar. I talked about all the geriatric lawyers there in a previous post. While there, I attended a brown-bag luncheon.
I know very little about Kansas Law, having practiced Military/Federal-centric law for my entire legal career. I know little about the status of Kansas courts or the lawyers who practice within them. Nonetheless, I found the luncheon to be informative and instructive.
The keynote speaker was the Chief Justice of the State of Kansas, Lawton Nuss. Damn, I love that name. Lawton Nuss sounds like someone who spits tobacco at least 25 feet and has a shadowbox filled with different varieties of barbed wire on his wall. It is the name of a real man’s man–a guy who embodies everything the Marlboro Man is supposed to be–minus the carcinogenic stuff. Here’s a picture of this former Marine who stands about 6’3”. Am I wrong?
He spoke to us in the most unpretentious manner about the state of Kansas courts and the initiatives undertaken to streamline operations and improve accessibility. I was impressed (something I don’t say often).
My opinion of all state court systems is that they are ripe for stagnation. More than any other branch, they get away with the statement “that’s the way we’ve always done it” more than any other. They do so by being relatively inaccessible, closed to new thoughts and procedures, mysterious, and exclusive. They are led by bureaucrats, not leaders.
CJ Nuss bucks that trend. Inheriting a court at a moment of financial disaster in Kansas, he was forced to close the courts last year for several days due to lack of funding. It is an act that haunts him personally. He accepts his authority as a leader, not a bureaucrat. Two things about the closure bother him the most–the lack of courts for those who need them and the harm done to the employees of the judicial branch who lost salary due to the shut doors. He’s resolved to never do that again.
How? He wants to change the way courts do business and streamline all operations while maximizing accessibility to the average citizen. He’s willing to make the judiciary uncomfortable in the process. He sends his associate justices out to interview members of the bar and the bench on ways to improve the system. He forces the court out of it’s comfortable home in Topeka to hear cases in remote parts of a remote state, just to promote greater transparency for the system. He’s making a difference by doing different things. He has knocked the Kansas court system off balance as a means of forcing them to look where they are standing.
So, why am I lauding this? After all, I don’t practice before any of his courts. A few months ago, Norm Pattis bemoaned the composition of many Supreme Courts. His gist? The courts consisted of academics and career judges–not practitioners. Well, good news, Norm. Governor Bill Graves appointed CJ Nuss to the supreme court from a small firm in Salina, Kansas–not a law school, and not another appellate court.
His tenure is still a work in progress, but there is no mistaking that his process is one that the likes of Kansas has never seen. He wants to make a difference, and he wants change. Stagnation makes him sick. He doesn’t mind discomfort.
My hope is that his tenure gains traction and attention. Kansas doesn’t exactly set precedent for other states, but CJ Nuss should.