Bill Seeking to Bypass Frankfort Judges Stalls in Committee

Mar 12, 2019

Credit Flickr/Creative Commons

A bill aimed at redirecting big legal cases away from a circuit judge who has drawn the ire of Republican leaders is on "life support" after a Kentucky House committee refused to consider the measure Tuesday, the Senate's top leader acknowledged.

Senate President Robert Stivers said lingering concerns made it uncertain whether the bill could clear the Judiciary Committee and pass the GOP-dominated House. As a result, the committee skipped over the bill with just a handful of days left in this year's legislative session.

"If they do have questions, they need to be answered," Stivers told reporters afterward. "If they don't have the votes, there's no reason or necessity in bringing it before the committee or taking it on the floor."

Asked if his bill is dead, Stivers replied: "I would say it's probably on life support. But there's still time and I think there's still some work being done on it. But the likelihood, with any bill as time goes on with three days left (after Tuesday), becomes less and less that it will pass."

The bill's critics included Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr., who during a Senate committee hearing on the proposal implored lawmakers: "Don't do this to the system."

When told Tuesday that the bill had stalled, Minton replied, "I'm very pleased to hear that."

The measure reflects some Kentucky lawmakers' long-held concerns that judges in Franklin County Circuit Court wield too much power in deciding cases of statewide consequence. Stivers has called it a "super circuit."

The measure would set up a process to avoid having cases heard in Franklin County. In a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a state law or regulation, any state officials named as defendants could request a change of venue, triggering a random drawing to determine where the case would be heard. Those cases now often end up in Franklin County Circuit Court in Frankfort — the seat of state government.

Several rulings from that circuit have gone against Republican Gov. Matt Bevin and the GOP-led legislature in recent years, including last year's decision by Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd that struck down a public pension law. The state Supreme Court upheld his ruling.

Even before that ruling, Bevin went on talk radio and called Shepherd an "incompetent hack."

Stivers delivered his own criticism of Shepherd on Tuesday, saying: "Judges judge; they don't practice. And it has become apparent that this judge has tended to practice the cases instead of judging the cases."

While speaking out against the measure last month when it was reviewed by a Senate panel, Minton noted that the bill's supporters signaled it's aimed at one judicial circuit, and "perhaps one judge in one circuit." But he warned that the bill would affect judges statewide, adding that it "conjured up a hurricane to extinguish a match."

The chief justice warned that such a "litigation lottery" could result in cases being shifted from one end of Kentucky to the other.

Stivers said Tuesday that he didn't know if Minton's opposition was a factor in the bill stalling.

Under the bill, state officials would have 20 days after receiving a legal complaint to give notice that they want a venue change. The circuit court clerk in the jurisdiction where the lawsuit was filed would later select the new venue through a "random lottery draw."