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  • Last modified 62 days ago (Feb. 21, 2024)

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Getting up from the floor of the Kansas House

This has been a week of change for your friendly neighborhood editor. And it’s not just because my new kitten has figured out how to stop annoying ringing by knocking old-style wired telephone handsets off their cradles.

I never would have thought I would turn down an invitation to be recognized on the floor of the state legislature. That’s particularly true when the legislation I was to be supporting would be reaffirming rights of free expression.

But that’s exactly what I did after our state representative, Scott Hill, invited me to join him in support of a resolution he was introducing. It basically reiterated U.S. and Kansas guarantees of freedom of the press, speech, and religion.

Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t decline because I disagree with Hill’s positions on other issues. In fact, I do disagree with some of them. And segments of his party might consider me a RINO. But I remain a steadfast and registered Republican. I even voted for Donald Trump four years ago. (I won’t make that mistake again.)

The real reason I turned Hill down is that his legislation ignored, rather than addressed, what happened to us. It instead fostered political division and drew attention to an unrelated hot-button issue. These are the precise problems that continue to mire our state and nation in needless political rancor.

A few weeks ago, a group of mainly Democrats, joined by nearly a dozen Republicans, also proposed legislation about free expression. But it specifically asked Kansas Bureau of Investigation to finally say something about its now six-month-long investigation of a raid that tried to put this newspaper out of business and contributed to my mother’s death.

The other proposal was well-intentioned and logical. But neither Hill nor our county’s other state representative, Stephen Owens, would allow their names to be attached to it, even though it sought to address a situation that occurred in their districts.

Instead, they — along with the powerful speaker of the House — proposed legislation that offered little more than a verbatim restatement of rights they already had sworn to uphold when they took office.

It didn’t even mention what happened here. Instead, it directed attention to speech on college campuses, where comments about the Israeli-Hamas war have become a hot-button topic. It also included limitations on when constitutionally guaranteed freedoms might be ignored.

Hill and Owens chose to focus on distant issues, limit support for free expression, tie it to a favorite party-line issue, and not even ask KBI to update anyone on its secretive investigation.

Although it’s 100% clear we did nothing wrong, we’re still technically the target of an investigation. The investigation ought to be focusing on those who violated our civil rights, not us. But KBI has refused to say who or what it is focusing on.

Meanwhile, our legal bills have swelled to nearly $140,000. That amount is just for defending us, not for preparing any lawsuits we expect to file. Fortunately, insurance has covered a large portion of the bill, but as long as KBI won’t say whether it’s pursuing us or the people who raided us, we have to keep defending ourselves.

If the Legislature really wants to prevent reoccurrence of what happened here, I have some suggestions:

Make it possible to discipline judges who don’t thoroughly read search warrant applications before approving them. Complaints were lodged not by us but by other concerned citizens against Magistrate Laura Viar, who signed the warrants. A disciplinary panel said no discipline was possible. Still, it informally advised her that in the future, she should actually read and evaluate applications before approving them.

That seems rather basic to the job of any judge. As a college professor, I had tenure — essentially a job for life. But I still could have been disciplined or fired if I didn’t perform basic duties. Why should judges be any different?

Except in emergencies, magistrates from other counties shouldn’t approve warrants in counties that aren’t allowed to vote on whether to retain them. Viar’s retention will be decided in this year’s general election, but not by Marion County voters. Only Morris County voters will be able to scrutinize her work.

Except in emergencies, require prosecutors to thoroughly review applications before they go to judges. County Attorney Joel Ensey withdrew the warrants in our case after they were served. He said he hadn’t really read them before the raid. Complaints to state panels about him were greeted by responses like those in Viar’s case. Although many prosecutors insist on reviewing warrants first, a review panel wrote, they’re not legally required to do so and are largely immune from discipline or dismissal.

The legislature could and should mandate prosecutorial review and should think not just about upholding its pledge to support the Constitution but also about how to penetrate the blanket of immunity behind which prosecutors and judges hide.

 Reiterate in state law what’s already in federal law. Our laws should make it clear that it’s almost always better to use subpoenas instead of raids to seek material gathered for journalistic purposes. That way, disclosure can be challenged before police are able to invade a newsroom and rifle through unrelated material, like the material we had from anonymous sources questioning Gideon Cody’s fitness to serve as Marion police chief.

By playing politics and ignoring local issues to focus on hot-button national ones, our two state legislators became part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

That’s why I stayed in Marion this week. Oh, and to move my old phones to someplace — if it exists — that my cat can’t reach.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified Feb. 21, 2024

 

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