Investigations

After days of refusing to provide details on a proposal to make the search warrant process more transparent, a court official on Friday confirmed that Jefferson District Court judges voted down the rule changes.

District Judge Julie Kaelin proposed a sweeping policy overhaul, aimed to add transparency and oversight to the search warrant system, to her fellow judges. It would have required judges and police to record themselves when considering a warrant; allow only certain judges to review warrant requests each day; and require that a record be kept of warrants rejected by a judge.

The judges met Tuesday to consider the proposal in a secret meeting. In the days that followed, Jefferson District Court Chief Judge Anne Haynie and court administrator Kelsey Doren did not respond to repeated requests about the outcome of the meeting.

On Friday afternoon, Doren said via email that the proposal failed. Minutes from the District Court’s judges’ regular monthly meetings “are confidential,” she said. Doren did not respond to a request for an interview with Chief Judge Haynie. 

The secrecy surrounding the judges’ meeting and ultimate decision is troubling, said Mike Abate, a Louisville-based attorney who specializes in First Amendment issues.

“Judges are elected public officials who administer justice in the public’s name,” said Abate, who has represented KyCIR in public records issues. “It’s a really important issue that affects people all across the community.”

Abate said while courts may not be subject to the state’s open records and open meetings laws, they should consider themselves subject to public scrutiny, and allow for the public to observe critical elements of policy making.

“It’s the business of the people,” he said.

Kaelin, who proposed the rule change, said the intent of the proposal was to increase transparency “at every step of the warrant process.”

“Which would have the laudable — and perhaps needed now more than ever — side effect of encouraging confidence in the judiciary,” she said. “I felt we had an opportunity to lead without waiting for others, and I wish we had chosen to do so.”

The measures would have been a major shift for the local District Court, which handles misdemeanors, juvenile cases, felony probable cause hearings and other issues. The court’s local rules require only that judges file copies of approved search warrants with the Jefferson Circuit Court Clerk. 

Kaelin is not done pushing for change: she says citizens are demanding reform, “and rightly so.”

“Ours is a beautiful but historically flawed and fragile justice system, and it must always strive to serve its citizens before itself,” she said.

The new rules would only apply to the 17 elected District Court judges because Circuit Court judges have their own rules. But it would apply to the judges most prolific in approving warrants: A review by KyCIR and WDRB News of more than 230 warrants found more than 80 percent were signed by District Court judges.

The new rules would’ve increased oversight of the search warrant process that’s come under scrutiny after  Louisville Metro Police officers shot and killed Breonna Taylor, after entering her home with a no-knock warrant, in March. The Federal Bureau of Investigations is examining the circumstances of that warrant. 

The Louisville Metro Council banned no-knock warrants county-wide, and the city’s Criminal Justice Commission is pushing for more, statewide search warrant reforms — some of which mirror the rules that failed Tuesday.

Now, hope for reform rests with state legislators, who will convene again in January and are expected to take up at least two measures focused on search warrants.

Angela Cooper, a spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, said the public trust in the criminal justice system is eroding and systemic change is necessary.

“We are disappointed that the district court judges decided not to provide needed transparency regarding our flawed criminal justice system,” she said. “This decision is particularly troubling as public outcry continues to show how the system fails to hold police accountable.”

This story was updated to add comments from District Judge Julie Kaelin.

Contact Jacob Ryan at JRyan@kycir.org.

Jacob Ryan is a reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.