Kentucky Politics

Gov. Andy Beshear has vetoed a bill that attempts to change the venue for lawsuits that challenge the constitutionality of a law, executive order or state agency action.

The Republican-led legislature passed House Bill 3 earlier this month. The measure seeks to move those cases out of Franklin Circuit Court, where some Republicans say they aren’t treated fairly, and instead allow the lawsuits to be heard in the judicial district where a plaintiff lives.

In his veto message, Beshear wrote that the bill would create significant costs for state and local governments defending themselves from the lawsuits.

“House Bill 3 is the annual attempt to remove cases from Franklin Circuit Court because of legislative dissatisfaction with the duly elected judges and their rulings,” Beshear wrote.

“Changing well-settled legal procedure for this reason is bad policy, and sets a precedent for changing state law based on who is or is not in certain elected positions.”

The bill is one of seven measures that passed out of the legislature during the first week of this year’s legislative session.

Beshear vetoed five of those bills earlier this week, most of them seeking to curtail his powers, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.

One bill still hasn’t been signed or vetoed — Senate Bill 9, the so-called “born alive” bill, which would make it a felony if doctors don’t provide life-saving treatment after a botched abortion.

If Beshear doesn’t act on Senate Bill 9 by the end of Thursday, it automatically becomes law without his signature.

Supporters of House Bill 3, the measure dealing with Franklin Circuit Court, say the current scheme is burdensome for plaintiffs in far corners of the state who have to travel to Frankfort to plead their cases against the government.

But Republicans have also grumbled for years that judges in Franklin Circuit, elected by the residents of Franklin County, are too liberal. Former Republican Gov. Matt Bevin repeatedly accused Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd of being a “hack” and “political operative.”

Tom Fitzgerald, an attorney and executive director of the Kentucky Resources Council, says the bill is a “solution in search of a problem” and that nothing in current law requires such challenges to be filed in Franklin Circuit.

Fitzgerald conducted an analysis of 261 constitutional challenges filed in the first nine months of 2020 and says that only 11 were cases against officials or agencies, and that only two ended up in Franklin Circuit Court.

Testifying before a legislative committee earlier this month, Fitzgerald said the bill was “special legislation” not allowed under the Kentucky constitution.

“It doesn’t make a rational distinction for why in this subset of cases, the forum will be set by the plaintiff,” Fitzgerald said.

Republicans have large majorities in the state House and Senate and could easily override Beshear’s vetoes later this month. It only takes a simple majority of votes in each legislative chamber to override a Kentucky governor’s veto.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.