Kentucky's governor won the first round of a legal fight with his former running mate Monday as a judge turned down Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton's request to immediately reinstate her top two aides.
Hampton presented a "substantial legal question" in challenging the dismissal of her assistants, said Franklin County Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd, who ordered a pretrial conference for Thursday on Hampton's lawsuit against Gov. Matt Bevin.
But Shepherd denied Hampton's motion for a temporary injunction seeking to reinstate her chief of staff and deputy chief of staff. Her assistants were fired by Bevin's administration without her consent earlier this year.
The extraordinary legal fight between the two Republicans comes as Bevin faces a tough reelection campaign in November against Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear. Bevin dropped Hampton from his ticket early this year.
Hampton's attorney, Joshua Harp, said he was disappointed with the judge's ruling Monday but predicted the lieutenant governor will ultimately prevail on the merits of her legal action.
"However, the present reality is that Lt. Gov. Hampton remains hampered by her lack of staff, and each day that passes while she is deprived of the rights that go with her office is one more day she will not get back," he said in a statement.
Bevin's office didn't immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
Hampton's lawsuit seeks a ruling declaring that the lieutenant governor, as a constitutionally elected official, is empowered under law to hire and fire staff members in the office.
In his ruling, Shepherd said Hampton has "failed to identify any clear statutory basis for her argument that she has inherent power to hire and fire her own staff, independently of the policies and procedures put in place by the governor."
He ruled after the two sides were unable to resolve the dispute outside court.
"While Lt. Governor Hampton has performed the duties assigned to her in an exemplary manner, the court cannot find that she is hampered or restricted in performing her statutory duties by the lack of staff," the judge said in his order. "And the failure of the governor to assign her broader duties is a matter that is within the exercise of his discretion and outside the scope of the issues in this action."
At a hearing last month, Bevin's lawyer described the dispute as a minor disagreement among friends. Hampton disputed that characterization, bluntly telling reporters afterward: "My friends don't treat me this way."
Despite the lawsuit, Hampton said after that hearing that she supports the governor's reelection. Asked if she was worried that her lawsuit would hurt Bevin's chances, she replied: "I don't know. The person who initiated these firings should have thought of that before doing so."
Bevin picked Hampton as his running mate four years ago, and she made history as the first black person elected to statewide office in Kentucky. She lobbied him to retain her this year, but he dropped her in favor of state Sen. Ralph Alvarado. Hampton has strong support among tea party activists, and some have come to her defense.