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Minton retirement creates first open election in the Kentucky Supreme Court’s second district since 2006

York, Dalton

The 2022 election cycle features an unusual amount of turnover on Kentucky’s Supreme Court. Races for three of the court’s seven seats feature no incumbent, including the second district Supreme Court seat currently held by the retiring Chief Justice John D. Minton, Jr.

Two Bowling Green attorneys are vying to replace Minton: Court of Appeals Judge Kelly Thompson and healthcare attorney Shawn Alcott.

Thompson was elected to the commonwealth’s intermediate appellate court in 2006, occupying the same ballot at Minton’s first race for the high court. Prior to serving on the Court of Appeals, Thompson maintained a private practice and served as a contract public defender in the eighth judicial district. He represented the Department of Highways as chief trial counsel shortly after his graduation from the University of Kentucky College of Law.

Alcott’s experience includes clerking for the Kentucky Court of Appeals and prosecuting district and family court cases as an Assistant Warren County Attorney. Since entering private practice, Alcott has mainly focused on representing hospitals and healthcare professionals in the region. She also represents several local governments and businesses in litigation.

Thompson said his prior experience as an appellate judge brought several priorities to his attention that he hopes to tackle as a Supreme Court justice. A major goal is preventing the dismissal of cases based on technicalities, Thompson said.

“If a lawyer makes a mistake, punish the lawyer, not the client,” Thompson said. “Every case that comes into the appellate courts should be decided on its merits.”

Thompson said the Supreme Court should issue detailed opinions based on law rather than short orders admonishing individual attorneys.

Judicial races in Kentucky are nonpartisan and heavily regulated, meaning judicial candidates are prevented from making overt political statements and are banned from directly soliciting campaign contributions. However, Thompson said untraceable “dark money” is finding its way into the commonwealth’s judicial elections. He said the groups spending “dark money” in the second district race are targeting his campaign.

“They’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to beat me. I don’t know why. Don’t know who they are. They’re cowards,” Thompson said.

Thompson said political spending groups from across the partisan spectrum from multiple states including Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina are targeting the race.

“They’re all anonymous and I don’t know what they’re going to be for or against. They should not be in this race,” he said.

Alcott, Thompson’s opponent, emphasized her campaign has no control or coordination among political action committees (PACs).

“I really only know what’s been reported about PACs that might be getting involved or running their own advertising to support candidates.”

Unlike Thompson’s criticism of PAC spending in judicial races, Alcott said weighing in on campaign finance laws isn’t in the purview of a judicial candidate.

“That is more appropriately discussed in the legislature. I can’t say that I have a strong opinion one way or the other,” Alcott said. “I don’t know that I welcome or condemn it.”

While independent PAC spending is loosely regulated and unlimited in amount, PACs that directly contribute to campaigns are featured on the campaign finance reports submitted by the candidate.

In the general election, Alcott received a $2,000 contribution from the “Bluegrass Committee,” a PAC based in the northwest Virginia suburbs of the nation’s capital. The watchdog group Open Secrets identified the group as a leadership PAC affiliated with U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Thompson’s campaign has also received direct PAC support. The Washington D.C.-based Communication Workers of America contributed $1,000 to Thompson’s campaign in September.

Candidates are legally barred from communicating or coordinating with PACs.

Alcott said she is focusing her energy on engaging with local communities rather than the partisan attacks more frequently becoming associated with judicial races.

“Judges come to the bench not with an agenda or priorities. They are there to carry out their duty while being reasonable and fair-minded,” Alcott said.

Fighting judicial partisanship became one of the hallmarks of Chief Justice Minton's tenure. In his final State of the Judiciary address, he encouragedthe General Assembly to stand up to attacks on the state’s court system and pass laws that protect judicial integrity. University of Kentucky College of Law professor Joshua Douglas said Minton’s departure will be a great loss to the commonwealth's judiciary.

“Minton has been focused during much of his time on ensuring that the court remains nonpartisan. He’s really worked to make sure that judicial elections are fair, trying to enact rules that are fair and follow the First Amendment while also maintaining the impartiality of the court system. On the court itself, he’s been a guiding force to make sure the justices don’t devolve into partisan bickering,” Douglas said.

Douglas said he is concerned the new slate of Supreme Court justices could bring more partisanship to the court.

“It does start from the top. The Kentucky Supreme Court will have some new members but there’s also going to be a new chief. And the chief can set the tone for the Supreme Court as well as the entire judiciary” he explained.

Both Alcott and Thompson praised Minton’s handling of the court’s docket amid increasing polarization in Frankfort. Alcott specifically lauded Minton’s temperament and willingness to modernize the judiciary amid the increased use of technology and the struggles of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“His character and integrity are very high. He has set high standards for the court and led our judicial system through quite a transformative period,” Alcott said.

Thompson said the loss of Minton is “immeasurable.”

“He has no hatred in his heart. He is a nice guy. He can go over to the legislature and nobody can get mad at him. Our previous chief justices had a lot of difficulty dealing with the legislature and getting our budgets. He’ll be greatly missed,” Thompson said.

The second Supreme Court district includes Simpson, Allen, Monroe, Butler, Warren, Barren, Ohio, Grayson, Edmonson, Hart, Hancock, Breckinridge, Hardin, LaRue, Meade, Bullitt, and Spencer counties.

Other contested Supreme Court races include an open seat in Louisville created by the retirement of Deputy Chief Justice Lisabeth Hughes, and a northern Kentucky race pitting incumbent Justice Michelle Keller against Republican State Representative Joe Fischer. The northern Kentucky race has attracted attention for Fischer’s partisan statements identifying as the “conservative Republican” in the race, attracting the attention of the Kentucky Judicial Conduct Commission.

The general election will take place November 8.

Dalton York joined WKU Public Radio in December 2021 as a reporter and host of Morning Edition. He graduated summa cum laude with a B.S. in History from Murray State University, and was named MSU's Outstanding Senior Man for fall 2021. He previously served as a student reporter and All Things Considered host for WKMS, part of the Kentucky Public Radio network. He has won multiple Kentucky Associated Press Awards and Impact Broadcast Awards from the Kentucky Broadcasters Association. A native of Marshall County, Dalton is a proud product of his tight-knit community.