State of Kansas: New committee to examine unmet legal needs in rural Kansas

Chief Justice Marla Luckert signed an order creating the Kansas Rural Justice Initiative Committee to examine unmet legal needs in rural Kansas related to a shrinking number of attorneys living and working in rural areas.

Luckert, a fourth-generation Kansan raised in Sherman County, said the trend toward fewer attorneys in rural areas is not unique to Kansas. She also noted attorneys in rural areas tend to be older, and some work well beyond a typical retirement age because there is no one available to take over the work.

“What’s happening here is happening across the nation,” Luckert said. “For state courts, it might mean a smaller pool of attorneys seeking to fill judge positions when a sitting judge retires. For rural residents, it could mean choosing between going to court without an attorney and hiring an out-of-county attorney with additional costs.”

In Kansas, the ratio of active attorneys to population ranges from two for every 535 residents in urban areas to one for every 808 residents in rural areas. Two counties — Wichita and Hodgeman — have no attorneys. Five counties have one attorney and 11 others have only two.

Justice K.J. Wall, a native of Scott City, will chair the committee. He’s heard from some district court judges that it’s becoming more difficult to find defense counsel with the necessary qualifications to represent indigent defendants charged with higher level felonies. Bringing in counsel from another county comes at a higher cost, and it can result in more continuances.

Wall is encouraged the committee will be able to articulate the full spectrum of issues tied to limited attorney availability in rural areas, beyond what he’s heard anecdotally.

“We’ve pulled together a diverse group of people who have both insight and interest in this issue,” Wall said. “I look forward to working with the committee to uncover and find ways to overcome challenges created when there are too few attorneys in rural areas.”

The 35-member committee includes representatives from all three branches of state government, the legal and business communities, law schools, and organizations that serve victims of sexual or domestic violence.

Over 18 months, the committee will study general population trends, as well as trends related to attorneys and other legal professionals who support court and court-adjacent programs. It will also look for differences in unmet legal needs related to population density.

The committee will explore efforts to recruit and retain legal professionals in rural areas, whether those efforts are in Kansas or elsewhere. It will also look at programs highlighted by the National Center for State Courts Rural Justice Collaborative, a national effort initiated in early 2021 to address justice inequalities in rural communities.

At the end of 18 months, the committee will submit its initial recommendations to the Supreme Court. Recommendations could include proposals to change laws, regulations or rules in an effort to make attorney services more available. They could also include best practices to make it easier to meet legal needs across Kansas, as well as identify what might impede implementing best practices.

Eighty percent of active attorneys live in six urban counties — Douglas, Johnson, Leavenworth, Sedgwick, Shawnee and Wyandotte. The counties are also home to just over half of the state’s 2.93 million residents. This leaves about 1,500 attorneys to serve 1.25 million Kansans living in the state’s remaining 99 counties.

Appointed to serve on the committee are:

Justice K.J. Wall, Kansas Supreme Court, chair; Judge Kim R. Schroeder, Kansas Court of Appeals; Chief Judge Daniel D. Creitz, 31st Judicial District; Chief Judge Kevin Berens, 15th Judicial District; District Judge Tom Drees, 23rd Judicial District; District Judge Richard Marquez, 25th Judicial District; District Magistrate Judge Regine Thompson, 12th Judicial District; Senator Elaine Bowers, District 36; Representative Tory Marie Blew, District 112; Stephen B. Angermayer, Attorney, Pittsburg; Paige Bangerter, attorney, Dodge City; Andrew Bolton, attorney, Louisburg; Stacey Blakeman, Assistant Dean of Career Services, University of Kansas, Lawrence; Ashley D. Comeau, attorney, Plainville; Alan Cobb, Kansas Chamber of Commerce, Topeka; Aaron Cunningham, attorney, Hays; Timothy Demel, attorney, Beloit; Shirley Fessler, Director of Outreach and Accessibility, Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, Topeka; Wendee D. Grady, Assistant General Counsel and Director of Legal Foundation, Kansas Farm Bureau, Manhattan; Marilyn Harp, Executive Director, Kansas Legal Services, Topeka; Joslyn Kusiak, attorney, Independence; Shawn Leisinger, Associate Dean for Centers and External Programs, Externship Director, Washburn University School of Law, Topeka; Angela Meyer, attorney, Pittsburg; Joshua Ney, Jefferson County Attorney, Oskaloosa; Charles Peckham, attorney, Atwood; Trisha Purdon, Office of Rural Prosperity, Kansas Department of Commerce, Coffeyville; Brad Ralph, attorney, Dodge City; David J. Rebein, attorney, Dodge City; Wendy Rohleder-Sook, Assistant Professor of Political Science and Director of Pre-Law/Legal Studies at Fort Hays State University, Hays; Ann Sagan, Director of Special Projects for the Kansas Board of Indigents’ Defense Services, Topeka; Sally Shattuck, attorney, Ashland; Brien Stockman, attorney and Dane G. Hansen Foundation Trustee, Logan; Etta L. Walker, attorney, Sharon Springs; Jake Worcester, Kansas 4-H Foundation, Manhattan; and Jill Zimmerman, Kansas Agriculture and Rural Leadership Program, Manhattan.

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