Politics

Instead of tackling a comprehensive plan to reshuffle judgeships around Kentucky to alleviate overworked judges, the state legislature is poised to pass a more limited approach.

The changes would reallocate two judgeships from areas that have light caseloads and move them to areas with heavy caseloads.

Chief Justice John Minton said he would prefer more ambitious changes, but the compromise would still help courts with the most critical needs.

“In order for us to provide equal access to all of the people across the commonwealth, we have to shoulder the responsibility to put the judges where the judges are needed most,” Minton said.

House Bill 348 would move one judgeship from far-western Kentucky and create a new family court judgeship for the 28th Judicial Circuit, which includes Pulaski, Lincoln and Rockcastle counties.

The 54th Circuit, which includes Boone and Gallatin counties in Northern Kentucky, would also get a new family court judge, which would be freed up by eliminating a judgeship in Floyd County.

According to a study conducted by the courts system, the current family court judge in the 28th Circuit handles a workload of about two and a half judges and the 54th Circuit family court judge handles the work of two judges.

Sweeping Changes Stalled

Last year, Minton asked the legislature to pass a sweeping judicial redistricting plan that would add 16 family court judges across the state while eliminating 15 district and circuit court judges, beginning in 2022.

The measure passed out of the state Senate but wasn’t taken up by the House.

Sen. Whitney Westerfield, a Republican from Hopkinsville, said he was disappointed the bill didn’t make more sweeping changes.

“We’re showing a reluctance to do something that needs to be done. Which, evidently is the theme of the session,” Westerfield said. “We have to re-circuit our court system and this is a missed opportunity.”

The caseload imbalance is caused by the gradual migration of people from rural areas.

State lawmakers have been unwilling to create totally new judgeships because it’s expensive, so instead Minton has been pushing lawmakers to move them around the state.

“From a fiscal standpoint there is no more expensive tool in my tool chest than the judgeships,” Minton said. “We need to be responsible about how we deploy those judges to make the greatest impact for the benefit of the people of the commonwealth.”

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.

Family courts are part of circuit courts, but have separate judges.

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