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Kentucky Supreme Court Candidates Offer Starkly Different Resumes

Ryland Barton

Two believers in the conservative judicial philosophy of the late Antonin Scalia are highlighting starkly different resumes while making their case to voters in competing for a seat on the Kentucky Supreme Court.

State Sen. Whitney Westerfield and Judge Christopher Shea Nickell are vying to represent a 24-county western Kentucky district on the state’s highest court. The region’s voters will choose their new justice on Nov. 5, and the winner will serve the remainder of retired Justice Bill Cunningham’s term ending in 2022.

Both candidates in the nonpartisan race say they subscribe to the constitutional vision espoused by Scalia, the former U.S. Supreme Court justice.

Their backgrounds are where the differences emerge.

Nickell plays up his 13 years as a member of the Court of Appeals, the state’s second-highest court, where he’s authored hundreds of opinions.

Westerfield emphasizes his status as Senate Judiciary Committee chairman and his role in shaping key legislation — from revamping the juvenile justice system to combating heroin use and drunken driving.

He said his ability to bring divided interests together on legislation would be an asset as a judge when Supreme Court members meet in conference to discuss cases.

“I believe that my legislative experience, and the fact that I’m not already a sitting judge makes me an ideal candidate for the court,” Westerfield said in a recent phone interview.

Nickell sees his appeals court experience as setting up his “natural progression” to the Supreme Court.

“I’m the only candidate who has actually served as a judge,” Nickell said by phone. “The only candidate who offers any judicial experience in regard to having actually written appellate opinions, analyzed appellate arguments and been involved with appellate deliberations.”

Nickell noted that 98% of the Appeals Court opinions he has written withstood review — meaning the losing parties either decided not to appeal or lost at the next level.

Their backgrounds have common threads — both served as assistant prosecutors and handled a wide range of cases as attorneys.

There’s also a generational gap in the race — Nickell is 60 and Westerfield is 38.

“I think we need a justice on there who knows what it’s like to practice law today in the age of the iPhone,” said Westerfield, whose law practice is based in Hopkinsville. “Who understands the importance of moving things in an electronic direction instead of pulling things slowly along.”

Nickell practiced law for 22 years before becoming an appellate judge.

“Nothing takes the place of experience,” he said. “I became an appellate judge 13 years ago when my opponent became an attorney.”

Westerfield was first elected to the Kentucky Senate in 2012 and was narrowly defeated in the 2015 race for attorney general. Nickell was first elected to the Court of Appeals in 2006 and reelected in 2014.

Each candidate said he intends to run for another Supreme Court term in 2022 if he wins on Nov. 5.

David Buckingham was appointed by Republican Gov. Matt Bevin in late March to fill Cunningham’s seat on the seven-member Supreme Court until next month’s election.

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