Here’s a letter from citizen activist John Todd to Wichita City Council candidate Ken Thomas. The election of Wichita municipal court judges is important for reasons John makes clear in his testimony to the Kansas Legislature from 2004, which follows.
I am pleased that you are making the election of Municipal Court Judges by the people a campaign issue. Since 1999 three different local state legislators introduced bills in the legislature in an attempt to achieve municipal court reform, primarily by allowing the people to elect municipal court judges. All efforts at municipal court reform on the state level have failed. I am not an attorney, but I am now of the opinion that the city of Wichita could legislate the election of Wichita Municipal Court judges by Charter ordinance through their Home Rule powers as allowed by the Kansas Constitution.
Attached for your information are copies of testimony I presented before House and Senate legislative committees in 2004 regarding the need for the election of municipal court judges. I believe the arguments for the election of municipal court judges by the people I presented at that time are still applicable for today.
This information is intended to help you in your attempt to make the election of Wichita Municipal Court judges a reality. Please let me know if I can provide additional information. Former Wichita Municipal court judge Bruce Brown who was recently elected as a judge in the 18th Judicial System would be a good source of information regarding the election of municipal judges.
Here’s John’s testimony:
February 18, 2004
To: Members of the House Ethics and Elections Committee
Subject: Support for the passage of HB#2811, Election of Municipal Court Judges by the People.
My name is John Todd. I am a self-employed real estate broker from Wichita. I am here to speak as a private citizen in favor of the passage of House Bill No. 2811 that would allow the people to elect their Municipal Court Judges in the same manner and at the same time that they elect their City Council Members and Mayors.
I have been studying the Wichita Municipal Court since 1997. As a frequent visitor to the Court I have witnessed the workings of the Court, and I have had the opportunity to visit with citizens who have appeared before the Court. The Municipal Court has more power over citizens than most people know about. The Court can levy hundreds of dollars in fines against citizens, and can send them to jail for up to one year.
One of my first surprises was that there is no stenographic record of the Court proceedings. The Judge and the Prosecuting Attorney, both appointed city employees, can therefore say or do anything they wish with impunity! I heard one Municipal Court Judge refer to his docket as the “cattle call”. On another occasion I observed a citizen threatened with 5 years in prison if he didn’t follow the Judges wishes even though the Court jurisdiction only allows a maximum sentence of one year in jail.
I discovered that the Wichita Municipal Court Judges are actually appointed by the City Council. They actually work at the pleasure of the City Council from whom they receive their salary. There is no separation of power between the City Council (the Legislative Branch) and the Judge (the Judiciary Branch) of city government. The Municipal Court is therefore not independent from the influence of the City Council. In the late 1990’s the Municipal Court Judges were actually required to sign employment contracts with the City Council. Can anyone imagine the how difficult it would be for a citizen to protect their rights and receive due process of law in a Federal or State Court if Federal and State Court Judges worked at the pleasure of Congress or the State Legislature!
There are those who contend that the Municipal Courts are a revenue source for cities and towns with little thought of justice or doing what the law requires. One could see how a Municipal Court Judge who is appointed by the City Council might come under pressure from City Councils to raise money. A Wichita Eagle article reported that Wichita Municipal Court revenues increased from approximately $3 million to $9 million over a period of 6 years. That is an increase of approximately 300%. It is interesting to note that during the same time period that Court fines increased, news media accounts gave no mention of a 300% increase in the crime rate. Does anyone really suspect that the Wichita Municipal Court was more interested in collecting revenue than in dispensing justice?
Why is the election of Municipal Court Judges so important? I would estimate that a huge majority of our citizens who have their day in Court do so in the Municipal Court system in our towns and cities across the state. Is it important that people receive a fair trial in a free and independent Court? Absolutely yes! Is the citizen’s impression and perception as to the quality of justice that is dispensed important? As public servants, I believe you all know the answer to that question.
The election of Municipal Court Judges is the right thing to do. It returns control of the Municipal Courts to the people and makes the Judiciary branch of city government accountable to them. Please support the passage of House Bill No. 2811.