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Kentucky Chief Justice Asks Lawmakers To Reshape Court Districts

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The chief justice of the Kentucky Supreme Court is asking lawmakers to reorganize the state’s judicial districts to help alleviate heavy caseloads in some courts.

The changes would reallocate judgeships from areas that have light caseloads and consolidate some circuit and district court districts around the state.

Chief Justice John Minton said the gradual migration of people to more urban areas has thrown the current system out of balance.

“We have several locations where we have judges who are working at less than a 50 percent workload. That’s an imbalance that really is intolerable,” Minton said during a presentation to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“We’re doing a disservice to the people of Kentucky if we don’t address these issues.”

Kentucky is divided into 57 judicial circuits that hear cases dealing with felonies, lawsuits and property disputes. It also has 60 judicial districts that hear misdemeanor cases, violations of local ordinances and traffic cases.

Some family courts — which are part of circuit courts, but have separate judges — have been hit especially hard by heavy caseloads.

Minton singled out the family courts in the 28th Circuit, which includes Lincoln, Pulaski and Rockcastle Counties and the 54th Circuit, which includes Boone and Gallatin Counties for having the heaviest caseloads per judge.

“Family law cases […] are on time constraints, particularly when they deal with children,” Minton said. “Routine motions that aren’t set up on time constraints — like custody matters and support matters that are very important — can’t be heard for months.”

Minton unveiled a plan in 2016 that would have added 16 family court judges across the state while eliminating 15 district and circuit court judges.

The plan would take effect in 2022 when all lower court judges would have been on the ballot.

But the legislation has been controversial for some lawmakers because it would eliminate judgeships in certain areas.

Sen. Robin Webb, a Democrat from Grayson, said that some judges considered to have “light” caseloads are hearing complex cases and taking on additional duties.

“They go above and beyond — they’re always busy, they’re always there,” Webb said. “And I just think the numbers aren’t always indicative of the actual hours and what the caseloads entail.”

This year, Minton asked lawmakers to consider a scaled-back version of his redistricting plan if there wasn’t enough support for the full overhaul.

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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