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Kentucky's Top Elected Officials Prepare to Meet in Court

J. Tyler Franklin

Two of Kentucky's most bitter rivals will meet in court twice over the next 10 days in legal battles that could help shape the state's future in both politics and policy.

Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear has sued Republican Gov. Matt Bevin four times over his use of executive orders to reshape state government. Beshear has been victorious in one of those lawsuits, while the others are still pending.

On Wednesday, Bevin's attorneys will ask a judge to dismiss the latest lawsuit that challenges the governor's order to remake several boards that govern public education.

And next week, the two sides will argue before the state Supreme Court about whether Bevin has the authority to abolish and replace the boards of trustees at public universities, namely the University of Louisville.

The lawsuits have extra weight since Beshear is seen as a potential candidate to challenge Bevin for re-election in 2019.

At issue is Bevin's reliance on a little-known state law that allows governors to make changes to state government when the legislature is not in session. Since taking office, Bevin has used the law to alter 37 state boards by adding or replacing members. And he has plans to alter 39 more boards through executive orders.

Bevin has said the orders save money and make the state more efficient. Beshear argues that Bevin is ignoring state law so he can consolidate power.

Beshear has sued Bevin twice before over orders altering the boards of the Kentucky Retirement Systems and the University of Louisville. But his latest lawsuit goes one step further by asking the court to strike down the law Bevin is using as unconstitutional. Beshear says Bevin's orders create new laws, something only the state legislature can do.

"Governor Bevin has exercised this authority in an unprecedented and abusive fashion," Beshear's office wrote in court documents. "Time is of the essence."

Lawyers for Bevin say he is only using the authority the state legislature gave him. They note the law has been used by governors for decades to make temporary changes to state government without having to call an expensive special session of the part-time legislature. The legislature reviews the changes when they reconvene each year. If they take no action, the changes expire. The governor can then issue a new executive order once the legislature adjourns.

Bevin has said Beshear's lawsuits are politically motivated, an argument his lawyers repeated in court documents. They noted Beshear has only challenged three of the 37 state boards Bevin has altered.

"Tellingly, he has only sued over the reorganizations that touch the most politically sensitive issues — i.e., education and the pension system," Bevin's attorneys wrote in court documents. "The fact that he picks and chooses which reorganizations to challenge suggests that he is just trying to score political points."

Beshear responded by saying Bevin's orders "have led to disastrous results," including the University of Louisville being placed on probation by its accrediting body.

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