TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas lawmakers moved ahead Wednesday with a measure designed to help courts and prosecutors deal with a backlog of criminal cases caused by the coronavirus pandemic and a proposal to limit state and local officials' power in setting restrictions in future pandemics.
The House gave first-round approval to a bill that would suspend until May 2024 a Kansas law that sets deadlines for criminal trials to protect defendants' constitutional right to a speedy resolution of their cases. Those deadlines have been suspended during the pandemic, but prosecutors fear that once Kansas ends its state of emergency for COVID-19, they won't be able to get all the cases to court in time to avoid having them dismissed.
The House expected to take a final vote Thursday to determine whether the bill goes to the Senate. But Wednesday's debate showed that some lawmakers are nervous about a three-year suspension.
"Delaying it to 2024 is just asking for people drag their feet," said Rep. Barbara Wasinger, a Hays Republican. "I say we do one year at a time."
Kansas' speedy trial law generally requires defendants to be brought to trial within six months of entering a plea, or the case against them is dismissed. But courts have postponed trials throughout the pandemic, and House Judiciary Committee Chair Fred Patton, a Topeka Republican, said there's now a backlog of about 5,000 cases.
The Kansas Supreme Court's chief justice can suspend the deadlines for the pandemic, but that authority ends with the current state of emergency, which expires March 31.
"We will face the reality that many individuals bound over for trial will simply have their cases dismissed, and in many of these cases, these are for violent crimes," said Rep. Nick Hoheisel, a Wichita Republican.
The bill initially suspended speedy trial deadlines for existing cases and eliminated them for future ones, but defense attorneys and some lawmakers balked. Defense attorneys and prosecutors agreed to a three-year suspension with guidelines for courts to use in determining which cases get heard first.
Some top Republican lawmakers don't think the existing state of emergency needs to be extended. Kansas has seen a decline in new COVID-19 cases in recent weeks to levels not seen since the fall.
Kansas had an average of 589 new confirmed and probable COVID-19 cases for the seven days ending Wednesday, according to state Department of Health and Environment data. The state added 1,122 cases since Monday to its total for the pandemic, making it 292,837, or one-tenth of the state's 2.9 million residents.
The state also added 81 COVID-19 deaths, for a total of 4,724.
Republican legislators and Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly have been at odds over the state's response to the pandemic, and lawmakers are looking at long-term changes to the state's emergency management law. The Senate Judiciary Committee had a hearing Wednesday on a measure from GOP senators.
Legislators last year forced Kelly to accept county officials having control over restrictions on businesses and public gatherings to keep the state of emergency in place. The Senate GOP's measure aims to curb the powers of the governor and state and local health officials.
The bill would require the governor to allow the state attorney general up to 24 hours to weigh in on an executive order before it is issued. A committee of lawmakers would then vote on whether to approve the proposed order.
The bill would also allow for a resident "aggrieved" by a local or state public health emergency order to request a court hearing to contest it.
The legislation also would end the authority of health officials to close schools or issue quarantine or self-isolation orders.
Sen. Beverly Gossage, a Eudora Republican, said some constituents have expressed concerns that county health officials have too much authority.
"They felt that, if they are issuing an order, that it becomes a mandate and that the county commission, or whomever, feels that they have to bow down to whatever was ordered of them without realizing that actually they could be making the decision," Gossage said.
Andy Tsubasa Field is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.