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Powers: Sitting with Kansas Supreme Court valuable experience

Staff writer

Chief Judge Michael F. Powers of the 8th Judicial District Court thinks spending a day with the Kansas Supreme Court as a substitute justice will improve the work he does as a trial judge.

Chief Justice Robert E. Davis is ill, and has been away from the court for more than a month. The court needed to make progress on its docket, so it needed a substitute judge.

Powers was the justices’ choice to fill in for Davis, Office of Judicial Administration Information Officer Ron Keefover said.

“He is a veteran judge and he’s chief judge of the district,” Keefover said. “They need someone very good to work with them, and they thought Judge Powers was the one.”

Justice Lawton R. Nuss called Powers inviting him to sit with the court May 3. Powers accepted the invitation. He began researching the cases the court would hear about a month ahead of the date.

A week before hearing the cases, he received a memo from the court’s research staff regarding history and precedent for the cases.

Because he was a substitute justice, Powers used the court’s conference room as an office. He met the justices in the “robing room” for final preparations for court.

Entering the courtroom was an interesting ceremony, almost like a choreographed entry, he said. He appreciates the ceremony because it serves as a reminder that people should behave civilly in court. For that same reason, Powers maintains a relatively formal courtroom, he said.

The justices heard oral arguments in the cases 9 a.m. to noon. Attorneys presented their arguments then answered questions from the justices.

Powers said it was a different experience from being a trial judge. He compared it to the difference between playing football and officiating a football game. He knew what was going on, but he saw it from a different perspective.

After lunch, the justices discussed the cases. They reached a consensus on all of the cases that day. In cases when they can’t reach a consensus, they will schedule another discussion after they have researched the case more.

“I was extremely impressed at how ‘big picture’ they were thinking,” Powers said of the justices.

They were well prepared and kept in mind that their decisions have far-reaching consequences beyond just the case at hand.

Justices heard five cases on May 3: James Becker and the Estate of Norman Becker v. Harold Knoll, which was a dispute about an irrigation district; Gabriel Gaumer v. Rossville Truck and Tractor Co., Inc., et al., regarding product liability and sale of used farm equipment.

State of Kansas v. Isaac Duncan, regarding a plea agreement and waiver of rights; Charles McIntosh v. Kansas Department of Revenue, about whether someone can change their decision to refuse a DUI breath test; and Jack L. Goldsmith v. State of Kansas, about DNA testing.

The justices decide which cases are worthy of a hearing in the Supreme Court based on several factors, including importance, whether it involves a new legal issue, if there is confusion about the law, and if there have been conflicting opinions in appeals courts.

Powers said he couldn’t speak about the court’s decisions in the cases because the opinions have not been written yet. He said two or three of the cases will provide new guidance on legal issues.

He previously had assisted the Kansas Court of Appeals work through a large backlog of cases. His experiences with the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals have helped him improve as a trial judge, he said.

“It really helped me see what the appellate courts look at,” Powers said.

The experience in Topeka was interesting and valuable, but he didn’t express any aspirations of leaving the Eighth Judicial District.

“I like what I am doing. I try to fulfill my duties as best I can,” Powers said. “Covering my caseload while taking care of the administrative and personnel responsibilities of being chief judge of the district is challenging and stimulating. I really don’t see that changing.”

Last modified May 12, 2010

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