Kansas had a supreme court before it was a state. In the 1850s when there were only 100,000 people in the territory, those three judges were enough. But just a few years later the population skyrocketed and more courts were necessary. In 1972 the court system was unified and streamlined. In 1977 the intermediate appellate courts were created.
Kansas Limited Jurisdiction
Municipal courts are found throughout the state, handling traffic infractions, misdemeanors, and violations of local ordinances. Municipal judges do not have to be attorneys but must pass an exam within 18 months of being appointed to the position.
Kansas District Courts
Kansas is divided into 31 judicial districts, most of which are comprised of more than one county. Each county in the state has a district court, and there are 163 judges serving at this level. District courts have general jurisdiction over civil matters and trials, including juvenile issues, small claims up to $4,000, probate, and family court (divorces).
About half of the district court judges are selected by a nominating process after which they serve a one-year probationary period before running in retention elections for four-year terms. Other district judges are elected by voters in partisan elections, then run for retention every four years thereafter.
In 2015 there were over 392,000 cases filed in district courts including about 38,000 domestic relations cases, 164,000 traffic cases, 15,000 juvenile cases, and nearly 36,000 criminal cases.
Kansas Appellate Court
Panels of three judges sit to review cases in appellate court: they do not take original testimony but read the record of the case and hear oral arguments from both sides. The appellate court reviews decisions of lower courts and may take "'interlocutory" appeals (questions during trials in lower courts).
There are 14 judges on the court, and they move among three locations in the state for hearings. Judges are appointed by the governor following recommendations of a nominating committee. The state senate must vote to approve appointments, and judges serve four year terms after re-election by voters.
Kansas Supreme Court
Seven judges sit on the state Supreme Court. Candidates for the seats are selected by a nominating committee, and one is chosen by the governor. After a one-year probationary period on the bench, judges must run for re-election for each six-year term.
The Supreme Court hears appeals of death penalty cases, questions of the constitutionality of state laws; they administer the state bar and oversee operation of state courts.
Together, the state Supreme Court and appellate courts received over 2,000 cases in 2015. At the end of the year there were still 3,000 cases pending.
Kansas Notable Court Cases
A case against former Kansas state attorney general Philip Kline resulted in his disbarment by the state Supreme Court. The court found that Kline violated codes of conduct when allowed access to medical records of patients of an abortion clinic. Kline was allegedly investigating an abortion doctor, whom he accused of shielding pedophiles by not releasing information on pregnancies of underage girls. Kline's handling of the patients' medical records, including attaching them to public documents, was one of several misconduct allegations. A grand jury forewoman in the case against the abortion doctor also alleged that Kline mislead judges and jurors in the case. Kline's case against the abortion doctor was later dropped by prosecutors.
Parents and teachers waited in nervous anticipation as the state Supreme Court threatened to shut down public schools over a fight with legislators over the constitutionality of school funding mechanisms. The court had ruled that the state's funding mechanism for schools unfairly punished low-income districts by forcing them to levy higher taxes to fund schools. A frenzied period of negotiations resulted in legislators reinstating an old funding formula for one portion of the budget, which the court approved. Still, the court seeks to equalize funding for poor districts and wants the legislature to channel additional tax revenue to those schools, an aspect of the case that is still pending in mid-2016.