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State Supreme Court Expedites Bevin-U of L Lawsuit

J. Tyler Franklin

The state Supreme Court has agreed to take up Gov. Matt Bevin’s appeal of a ruling that said he can’t overhaul of the University of Louisville Board of Trustees.

The move comes two days after the state legislature voted to reorganize the board once again, despite worries that the moves might hurt the institution’s accreditation — which was put on probation last month.

Bevin dismissed the 17-member U of L board in June, later creating a 10-member board and appointing new members.

Attorney General Andy Beshear sued Bevin over the move, and a trial court ruled in September that the governor didn’t have the authority to reorganize the board, saying he effectively dismissed all the trustees without cause.

Bevin appealed the ruling, sending it to the state Court of Appeals, but Beshear requested that the case be fast-tracked to the state Supreme Court — a move protested by the governor.

Beshear issued a statement on Monday thanking the high court for taking up the case.

“We appreciate the Supreme Court understanding how critical this issue is,” Beshear wrote in the statement. “(Franklin Circuit Court) Judge (Phillip) Shepherd ruled that Gov. Bevin does not have absolute authority to dissolve or reorganize a university board any time and for any reason.”

Bevin’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the decision.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools put U of L’s accreditation on one-year probation last month, citing “undue political influence” over the institution’s governing body.

The accrediting agency signaled that it would send a letter to U of L’s administration this week providing more detail about the probation and how the school might rectify the situation.

But over the weekend, lawmakers voted to reorganize the board again in an effort to quickly resolve the problem, arguing that the legislature has “absolute authority” to reorganize university boards.

“I think maybe the best way to get a nod from SACS is to act on Senate Bill 12 and let them respond to what we have done, rather than what the governor has done,” said Rep. Jason Nemes, a Republican from Louisville, before the vote on Saturday.

Republican legislators advocating to reorganize the U of L board again pointed to history to justify the legislature’s power in the matter. In 1992, the General Assembly voted to reorganize all state university boards after previous Gov. Wallace Wilkinson appointed himself to the University of Kentucky board.

Students and faculty members at U of L have advocated against the governor’s and legislature’s reorganizations, worrying that the actions will lead to loss of accreditation, which could result in loss of federal financial aid and NCAA compliance.

It’s unclear how the new law will affect the court’s ruling, but there’s a possibility the case would be considered moot and dismissed because the legislature’s reorganization of the U of L board would undo the governor’s reorganization, said Louisville attorney Joe Dunman.

“When the relevant provisions of a law underlying a legal dispute change, the court generally considers that to negate the dispute. But it usually only reaches that conclusion on motion of one of the parties, though, so I assume a motion from Bevin’s team will be on its way soon,” Dunman said.

The court has not yet scheduled an oral argument for the case.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives. He's covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin. He has a bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago and a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas. He grew up in Lexington.

Email Ryland at
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