Kansas Supreme Court orders David Morrison council ouster case back to district court to apply new standard

David Morrison was reseated on the Prairie Village City Council last fall after being ousted a year earlier.
David Morrison was reseated on the Prairie Village City Council a year ago after being ousted a year earlier.

The Kansas Supreme Court Friday morning reversed a Kansas Court of Appeals ruling that put ousted Prairie Village Councilor David Morrison back in office nearly one year ago. But in the same ruling, the state supreme court also reversed the Johnson County District Court’s ruling that ousted Morrison in the first place.

The net result is that Morrison remains seated on the Prairie Village City Council and the case has been remanded back to the district court in Johnson County to apply a new standard that was outlined in the supreme court ruling this morning.

The incident that led to Morrison’s removal from the council occurred nearly three years ago, in November 2012, when he allowed a homeless friend to spend the night in Prairie Village City Hall. After a three-day trial in October of 2013, Johnson County Judge David Hauber ordered that Morrison relinquish his seat on the council as a result of his behavior.

That decision was reversed by the Kansas Court of Appeals one year ago and the court then granted Morrison’s request to be immediately re-instated on the council even though the district attorney was planning an appeal to the state supreme court.

In the ruling today, the state supreme court said that the court of appeals set “too high of a standard for determining whether certain actions justify ouster under (Kansas statute).” However, it said the district court “failed to consider whether the proven violations under the Code of the City of Prairie Village were prompted by a bad or corrupt purpose.”

“We are mindful that, under our Constitution, the people elect their state office holders and representatives and city and county commissioners in order to have such officials serve out their terms for which they are elected,” the majority opinion said. “It is only in exceptional circumstances that publicly elected officials should be removed prior to the completion of their terms. A careful review of our cases shows that, while they are at times inconsistent, they generally recognize an exceptional circumstance by requiring a bad or corrupt purpose when applying the question of willful neglect and willful misconduct under K.S.A. 60-1205(1) and (2).”

While it said that the appeals court set a standard of “sustained malfeasance” not required in prior cases, the supreme court ruling also said that the district court needed to determine if Morrison’s conduct was the “product of a bad or corrupt purpose,” which it did not do. The case was remanded back to the district court to apply the standard set out in the decision.

Two judges dissented in the decision saying they would have simply reversed the court of appeals and let the district court decision to remove Morrison stand, including Morrison’s removal from his council seat. The dissent said they did not agree that the district court failed to determine that Morrison’s conduct was the product of a bad or corrupt purpose.

Morrison’s current term on the council expires in April of 2016. The Prairie Village council has not determined how it might alter upcoming elections to comply with the new state election law. One option is to extend current terms or it could move ahead with an election in April that altered the next term. The Johnson County Election Office has determined that an April 2016 election is still valid.

Lannie Ornburn, the assistant district attorney who led the case against Morrison, said it is expected that Judge Hauber will set a schedule for the next steps shortly. The judge could ask for new briefs or oral arguments about the new standard. Morrison’s council colleagues voted for his ouster in November 2012, but the legal action for removal had to be filed by the district attorney.