TOPEKA — The House on Friday took aim at Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach's legal woes, easily passing a GOP-led attempt to avoid paying for his contempt of court penalties.
Rep. Russ Jennings, R-Lakin, proposed the amendment during the House budget debate. Under the provision, state funds can't be used to pay the penalties for a statewide elected official who is found in contempt of court.
The legislation poses several practical problems and is unlikely to survive. An American Civil Liberties Union official said it could create a conundrum if U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson determines Kobach's office is responsible for the contempt finding. A spokesman for Kobach pointed out that, if enacted, his successor could be on the hook.
"The proviso is legally flawed because the state office is the defendant in the case, and it was the office that was held in civil contempt, not the individual holding the office," said Kobach spokesman Moriah Day. "For example, if the issue isn’t resolved through an appeal by January, the new secretary of state will be the defendant in his or her capacity as secretary of state."
Robinson last week issued a contempt finding for Kobach for his failure to comply with her orders in a case over the state's voter registration law. Robinson issued a temporary injunction blocking enforcement of the law, which requires voter applicants to show a proof of citizenship document.
A contempt finding "is a power the court has to enforce its orders upon those who otherwise refuse without good cause to comply with such orders," Jennings said in explaining his amendment, which passed on a 103-16 vote.
During last month's contempt hearing, testimony revealed Kobach's office didn't give written notice to counties about the need to send postcards to suspended voters to inform them they could vote. Kobach's office also didn't check with counties to ask whether they were complying, despite his assurances to the judge that they were.
After Robinson issued her finding, which says remedies will include paying ACLU legal fees, Kobach blamed the counties and called Robinson's decision "ridiculous."
No lawmaker mentioned Kobach's name during Friday's debate, but Jennings alluded to Kobach's insistence on personally defending the law he had championed.
"It just reminds me as we talk about this — Abraham Lincoln's statement long ago that a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client," Jennings said.
Micah Kubic, the executive director of ACLU Kansas, said Robinson hasn't yet determined who is responsible for the latest citation.
"If Judge Robinson says that the office is responsible for the failure to comply, and fines it, it would definitely be covered by this," Kubic said, "which will produce quite a conundrum — nonpayment of court-ordered fines is likely not something the court will look too favorably on."