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Bill Seeks To Send Big Legal Cases To Statewide Judges

Josh James

The Kentucky Senate voted Thursday to allow state officials to avoid having their legal cases heard by a circuit judge who has drawn the ire of Gov. Matt Bevin for some of his rulings. The measure, sponsored by the Senate's top leader, won passage by a vote of 26-9 in the Republican-dominated chamber and now goes to the House, which is also under GOP control.

Critics of the bill include Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr., who during a recent committee hearing implored lawmakers: "Don't do this to the system."

The bill reflects long-held concerns from some Kentucky lawmakers that circuit judges in Franklin County Circuit Court wield too much power in deciding cases of statewide consequence. Senate President Robert Stivers, the bill's lead sponsor, has called it a "super circuit."

"So this is not a new concept," Stivers said during the Senate debate.

The measure would set up a process to avoid having cases heard in Franklin County. Its application would include big legal cases involving state government.

In a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a state law or regulation, any state officials who are named as defendants could request a change of venue, triggering a random drawing to determine where the case would be heard.

Those cases now often end up in Franklin County Circuit Court in Frankfort — the seat of state government. Several rulings from that circuit have gone against Bevin and the GOP-led legislature in recent years, including last year's decision by Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd that struck down a public pension law. The state Supreme Court upheld his ruling.

Even before that ruling, Bevin went on talk radio and called Shepherd an "incompetent hack."

Stivers has said he isn't pushing for the bill at the Bevin administration's request.

During the debate, Minority Floor Leader Morgan McGarvey, D-Louisville, said legislative interference in the assignment of judges to hear cases "sort of usurps the basic judicial function."

"The courts cannot direct the Senate on where to assign bills in committee," he said. "And the Senate shouldn't direct the courts on how judges are assigned to hear cases."

McGarvey also said the bill gives government officials a "special right" that others don't have.

Democratic Sen. Robin Webb criticized the process allowing officials to seek venue changes.

"There is no regular venue hearing, no venue process," she said. "It appears to be automatic."

Under the bill, state officials would have 20 days after receiving a legal complaint to give notice that they want a venue change. The circuit court clerk in the jurisdiction where the lawsuit was filed would later select the new venue through a "random lottery draw."

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