Colson: A Kansas Freak Out — it could happen here
“Who could imagine that they would freak out somewhere in Kansas (Kansas, Kansas, Kansas…)?”
Often when I read news stories from around the world that startle, outrage or simply confound me, song lyrics by the late, great Frank Zappa are the most fitting expressions I can find to describe how I’m feeling.
Zappa, I should note, was an outrageously gifted songwriter and musician who fronted the rock group, The Mothers of Invention. That group’s 1966 debut album, “Freak Out!” is acknowledged as having been groundbreaking, ahead of its time. In fact, Rolling Stone magazine in 2003 put “Freak Out” on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
So, as I read in Sunday’s New York Times about Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, and his efforts to rid the state of pesky judges who might not toe his right-wing, reactionary line of thinking, I recalled a line from that same Zappa album, specifically from the song, “It Can’t Happen Here,” quoted above.
Brownback recently signed into law a provision aimed at forcing the state courts to either agree to unprecedented limits on the state judiciary’s powers, or the entire state judiciary branch would lose its funding.
Specifically, the state courts either must decide in favor of a 2014 law stripping certain powers from the Kansas Supreme Court, or the state legislature would cease to pay the costs of its courts system.
Now, I’m not always happy with the courts, but I fervently agree with the principle, enshrined in our national and state constitutions, that an independent judiciary is essential to the balanced operation of a democratic republic such as the U.S. of A.
This law is just another example of how reactionary forces are trying to whittle away at all of our founding principles except one — the right to arm bears …, ah, I mean the right to bear arms, known as the Second Amendment.
Right-wingers cite that one all the time, although they do so incorrectly and idiotically. But that’s another column.
Back to Kansas, what Brownback and his cohort are upset about is the fact that some of the state’s courts have had the temerity to push back against the zanier efforts of the Republican-run legislature regarding such things as education.
According to the NYT story, the legislature has been fuming for some time over court rulings that the state’s education system is underfunded, which in itself is part of a determined right-wing campaign to scuttle our national education system, once admired the world over but now viewed with pity, at best, and contempt at worst.
In its place would be a system of so-called charter schools, which many see as outgrowths of racial and economic elitism aimed at keeping the poor and non-white segments of our population in their appointed place — meaning undereducated and underemployed.
The NYT quoted a legal expert as comparing the new Kansas law to, say, a situation in which Congress outlaws abortion and then threatens the judicial branch of government with defunding if it finds that law to be unconstitutional.
So-called conservatives everywhere like to spout that their unhappiness with the courts is because of “activist judges” siding with progressive ideals and against reactionary rules. In fact, however, the term, “activist judges” applies most accurately to judges who use their bully pulpits to rule in favor of such anti-democratic ideas as keeping black voters from voting, keeping women from having control over their own reproductive rights, and other troublesome topics.
In other words, these days, the “activists” of the judiciary are of the right-wing variety.
So Brownback and his cohort are using their positions to undermine the constitutionally backed independence of the judiciary, in order to pack the state courts with judges who agree with them.
In other words, this is an attempted, if subtle political coup in the making.
And, contrary to Zappa’s song title (see above), it can happen here, too.
We have a guy here in Garfield County, by the name of Carl McWilliams, who long has argued that the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) is an unconstitutional state agency, in part because it is charged both with promoting the oil and gas industry, and at the same time overseeing the industry for compliance with state and federal regulations.
Suppose a state court agreed with him, and ruled that the COGCC must be completely reorganized, thereby threatening the historically cozy relationship between the COGCC and the industry it is supposed to regulate.
How long do you think it would be before the state’s elected boosters of oil and gas would start agitating for a Kansas-like limitation on the courts?
If you’re unsure about an answer, allow me — it wouldn’t be long at all, maybe a week, before the industry’s lobbyists and pet legislators put such a law on the table.
My hope — and it should be yours, too — is that the Kansas judiciary stands tall and fights for its independence.
Otherwise, we all could be in trouble.