Who Should Hear Cases Against State Government? Lawmakers — And Kentucky's Top Judge — Disagree.

Feb 25, 2019

Kentucky Chief Justice John Minton took the unusual step of testifying in committee Monday, with the goal of dissuading lawmakers from approving changes to the state's judicial system. 

Credit Josh James / WUKY

"Don't do this to the system," he urged.

Under Senate Bill 2, the governor, legislature, and state agencies could ask for a randomly-selected judge to hear their case — sidestepping the pair of elected Franklin Circuit Court judges who currently oversee cases in the district. Republican backers view the change as a necessary corrective in a county that enjoys outsized sway over consequential cases affecting the entire commonwealth.

"Doesn't that... give an undue weight to the judges that sit in that circuit or to the voters who vote in that county?" Representative Whitney Westerfield quizzed opponents of the bill. "Isn't there a risk that it overpoliticizes that judicial circuit?"

GOP leaders have also worried aloud about Democratic dominance in the district, with some training special fire on Judge Phillip Shepherd. Governor Matt Bevin has labeled the judge, who ruled against the state's retirement system overhaul, an "incompetent hack" and accused him of "legislating from the bench."

"On certain issues, and it has become pretty well known, that Justice Shepherd wants to practice the case," Stivers told reporters in January. "And how do you change that, unless you change the way cases are assigned?"

But the Manchester Republican says the problems run deeper than one judge.

"This is something based on events that have taken place over many, many years," he told committee members this week.

In a rare appearance outside of periodic budget updates, Chief Justice Minton testified that the changes would be "ruinous" to the state judiciary.

Implementing the law could be both financially and systematically risky, he warned. Shuttling judges from across the state to hear cases in the Franklin Circuit would create a major financial burden on the judiciary, Minton said, and potentially favor state officials.

"It... attempts to create a special classification, however we define it, for government officials, and it would give to government officials rights that other Kentuckians don't have," he argued, telling lawmakers they've "conjured up a hurricane to extinguish a match."

Tom FitzGerald with the Kentucky Resources Council also noted the new judicial lottery system could hand off state cases to judges who are less familiar with them.

Senate Bill 2 passed out of committee and now heads to the full chamber.