Politics

Kentucky’s chief justice is sounding the alarm on a proposal to move lawsuits against the state and public officials from a court in Frankfort to a randomly selected judge from elsewhere in the state.

The measure comes after complaints from Republican Gov. Matt Bevin and GOP leaders of the legislature about rulings that came out of the current venue for such lawsuits — Franklin Circuit Court.

Chief Justice John Minton said that Senate Bill 2 would be “ruinous” for Kentucky’s judicial system because it would increase costs and create an unpredictable system.

“We have conjured up a hurricane to extinguish a match,” Minton said. “It has huge ramifications, not just for the judges — if you’re not concerned about the judges or the expense to the court of justice — but to the clients.”

Currently, any time someone sues the state or a state official in their official capacity, the case ends up before one of Franklin Circuit Court’s two elected judges —Thomas Wingate and Phillip Shepherd.

Under Senate Bill 2, those cases would be heard by a judge randomly selected among all the circuit judges in the state, if the state requests it.

Senate President Robert Stivers, a Republican from Manchester and sponsor of the bill, argued that the current structure gives Franklin Circuit too much power.

“If you want to talk about the equity, that one circuit has such substantial power that all the people in the state of Kentucky don’t get to vote on that is what I have defined as a ‘super circuit’,” Stivers said.

Republican lawmakers have proposed similar bills for years without success.

But the measure has new attention this year after Republican lawmakers and Bevin accused Franklin Circuit Judge Philip Shepherd of striking down last year’s pension bill for political reasons.

Shepherd ruled last summer that the legislature had ignored constitutional requirements by rushing the pension measure to passage. The Kentucky Supreme Court agreed in a unanimous decision last December.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Whitney Westerfield, a Republican from Hopkinsville, argued in favor of the measure.

“It’s a lot of influence and weight coming from one judicial circuit that has absolutely nothing different about it from any other circuit in the commonwealth,” Westerfield said.

The bill passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday and can now be voted on by the full Senate.

Tom Fitzgerald, an attorney who said he has argued cases in Franklin Circuit for 38 years, argued against the proposal.

“There is a familiarity and a competence I think in dealing with this very specific area of law that may be lost, to the disadvantage of all parties,” Fitzgerald said.

Chief Justice Minton also argued that the proposal would violate the Kentucky Constitution because it would treat government officials differently than other citizens.

“It attempts to create a special classification for, however we define it, government officials. And [to] give to government officials rights that other Kentuckians don’t have would be concerning to me,” Minton said.

“I hope it’s concerning to you.”

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