County attorney serving multiple roles in condemnation case creates impermissible likelihood of bias
by Melanie Thwing
Davenport v. Morris County Board of County Commissioners
(Kansas Supreme Court, September 10, 2010)
In February of 2000, the Morris County Board of County Commissioners in Kansas decided to vacate 2 roads. Davenport Pastures, LP filed a written application for damages because these roads accessed a ranch they leased. Without a hearing the Assistant County Attorney drafted a letter on the Boards behalf, rejecting the application. The matter was brought before the district court, which awarded Davenport $30,000.
The County Board appealed and the Court of Appeals remanded the case back to the County Board for further proceedings. After the remand the Assistant County Attorney pressed the Board to have a hearing, and on separate occasions took two commissioners to view the roads. At the attorney’s recommendation appraiser David Sundgren was hired. A hearing was held and the attorney acted as legal council for the Board, and cross-examined Davenport Pastures’ experts as well as Sundgren, who appraised damages of $4,050. The Assistant County Attorney also ultimately wrote the final decision of the Board.
Arguing that the Assistant County Attorney’s multiple roles violated due process, Davenport Pastures appealed. Neither the district court nor the Court of Appeals found sufficient evidence that his dual roles, “actually affected the Commission’s decision.”
Before the Kansas Supreme Court, Davenport Pastures argued that the multiple roles played by the attorney deprived them of their Fourteen Amendment right to due process. The Court cites Powers v. State Department of Social Welfare where the Department appointed its own attorney to preside over a “fair hearing,” and where the lawyer later represented the Department in the appeal. The Court in Powers found the double roles, “highly improper,” and a clear conflict of interest.” Further, in Coats v. U.S.D. a similar situation occurred where a school’s selection board choose one of its own attorneys to serve on a hearing committee. The Court in Coats found, “[T]he school board’s appointment of its own attorney to the hearing committee violated the rule of fundamental fairness… Such a blatant defiance of due process cannot be countenanced…”
The Kansas Supreme Court concluded that having the Assistant County Attorney represent the Board on almost all matters in this proceeding caused a risk of bias that is too high to be constitutional. He first played a role of legal advisor, second as the sole advocate for the Board, and third as an adjudicator because he had advised the Board to hire Sundgren, brought the commissioners to see the road, and drafted the decision. The Court observed that “…due process is violated when, under all the circumstances of the case, the ‘probable risk of actual bias [is] too high to be constitutionally tolerable.” The case was remanded back to the Board County Commissioners for reconsideration.