Kansas Supreme Court hears arguments in Manhattan special session

Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton Nuss tells the audience about the work Manhattan High School faculty and staff put into today's court preceedings. On Monday, the Kansas Supreme Court visited Manhattan High School in a special session to reach more people in Kansas. (Olivia Bergmeier | Collegian Media Group)

The Manhattan High School auditorium transformed into a courtroom where Kansas State students and members of the general public heard oral arguments for two cases during a Kansas Supreme Court special session on Monday.

Manhattan is the fifteenth city in Kansas to host the court since 2011 when, after 150 years, the Kansas Supreme Court held its first special session outside of the Kansas Judicial Center in Topeka. Other cities have included Salina, Greensburg, Wichita, Overland Park, Pittsburg, Kansas City, Hays, Garden City, Topeka, Hiawatha, Hutchinson, Winfield, Emporia and Colby.

While introducing the session, Chief Justice Lawton Nuss paraphrased a song from The Beach Boys to explain the court’s biannual travels across the state, saying that the court “gets around.”

“There were a few parts that were a little more informal than I might have expected, where the audience laughed,” James Copeland, graduate student in mass communications, said. “I always thought, you know, it was just going to be super formal, but it turned out to be pretty understandable I think as a layman.”

Kansas Supreme Court Justice Marla Luckert said in an interview after the session that some humor can help the process so long as respect for the process can be maintained.

“I think sometimes humor helps deal with a situation that’s often very tense, and stakes are high,” Justice Luckert said. “So sometimes, it’s not to make less of that because every case is very important, but I think just a little bit of humor helps everybody relax. Sometimes attorneys do a better job in presenting their case if they’re a little more relaxed and not quite so uptight.”

The two cases during the Manhattan session were State of Kansas v. Lee Edward Williams and State of Kansas v. Julia Colleen Evans. Each party was awarded time for oral argument and the defenses of each were awarded additional time for rebuttal at the stand in front of the seven justices.

As an appellate court, the Supreme Court does not hear new testimony or see new evidence, like a trial court — charged with fact-finding— would. Instead, the Supreme Court reviews trial court decisions to ensure that legal procedure was properly followed and that there wasn’t an unlawful mistake.

“It was really interesting to see the personalities in the justices,” Danielle Comstock, senior in agricultural communications and journalism, said. “You could actually see that they’re not just these dull people that talk law all the time, but also they kept bringing it back and making sure that the arguments stayed on track as applying the law, not determining if someone was guilty or not guilty.”

The seven justices all originate from Kansas as natives. One, Justice Dan Biles, graduated from K-State with a degree in journalism before studying law at Washburn University School of Law. Students enrolling in the Law of Mass Communications course next semester will be taught by Justice Biles, who has donated his salary to help the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications.

He and his colleague Justice Luckert both said the individual personalities and history of the justices plays into their ability to better decide on a case as a group.

The first case, State of Kansas v. Lee Edward Williams, was meant to determine whether the defendant’s right to a fair trial was upheld.

The criminal appeal surrounded three main issues with the fourth being a consideration of if the three surmounted to a major error together.

“The Constitution guarantees a fair trial, not a perfect one,” Jeffrey Jackson, professor at Washburn University School of Law, said. “There are actually some really interesting areas of the law that there have been lots of cases talking about these sorts of things and this looks like a particularly interesting case in that, again, there are arguments on both sides.”

A decision requires at least four votes in one direction to be affirmed or reversed, and each justice studies the cases individually before they hear the oral arguments as a group.

Picking out very minute details of the case comes from both training and practice, Justice Biles said.

“Each of the seven of us will often see a different piece of the defense,” Justice Biles said. “So like tonight, you’ll have noticed on the first case, I was kind of focused on the jury selection part to make sure I knew which jurors we were worried about.”

In the second case, State of Kansas v. Julia Colleen Evans, the court analyzed the application of the Fourth Amendment, which gives right to the protection against unlawful search and seizure.

Julia Colleen Evans was involved in a rollover accident on Interstate Highway 70, and law enforcement found methamphetamine in the car in a wallet that was inside of her purse. The defense stated the officer looked there to find a driver’s license, which was going to be used to fill out accident paperwork.

A case with similar circumstances has been previously decided in Colorado, the chief justice pointed out as the attorney built her argument.

Earlier in the evening, the same justice had publically thanked both sides of the bench for quick preparation, as the case had been added to Monday’s docket only the Friday before the special session. The previously listed case had been resolved, Chief Justice Nuss said.

Exploring the issue from multiple angles, Justice Lee Johnson asked the defense about a hypothetical scenario: If a car had crashed in front of the person’s house, would law enforcement have the right to search the person’s house for information?

“At our level, at an appellate court, you’re always trying to figure out whether what you’re doing can get twisted or have a consequence that you don’t intend,” Justice Biles said after the session.

Justice Luckert said she hopes observing the appellete court processes and listening to questions from the court proved to be a valuable learning experience for the audience.

“I hope all of that comes through so that they see that it’s a different thing than being a judge or a jury in a courtroom, hearing the evidence,” Justice Luckert said. “Instead we’re usually looking at the legal issue.”

Copeland said his expectations for the special session were met, and he would attend one again if the opportunity arose.

Comstock said the experience was one of value because it surprised her “that the actual people involved in the case weren’t there” because it’s different from what people see on TV.

According to Justice Biles, the court will be privately conferencing Tuesday about the cases in Manhattan. Justice Carol Beier said they hope to have a decision written about and announced in about 90 days, but the decision length on any given case varies.

The special session will soon be archived on kscourts.org for viewing.