Election 2020 Politics

Voters will decide whether to amend the Kentucky constitution to lengthen term limits for district court judges and commonwealth’s attorneys and also to raise the minimum experience required to be a district court judge.

The proposed amendment — listed as “Amendment 2” on the ballot — would increase the term of commonwealth’s attorneys from six to eight years, beginning in 2030. The term of district court judges would double from four to eight years, beginning in 2022. 

District court judges would also need to be licensed attorneys for at least eight years — quadruple the two years required now to run for a district court judge’s seat — beginning in 2022.

The proposed amendment will need a simple majority from voters to pass.

Proponents say the amendment would align the terms of prosecutors and judges, and facilitate possible recircuiting or redistricting, which has been studied over the last few years as a way to balance caseloads and accommodate for population change.

“If the amendment is not approved, it would make it more difficult to re-draw judicial circuits in a fashion equitable to Kentucky’s judges and felony prosecutors,” said Rob Sanders, commonwealth’s attorney in Kenton County. “Our jurisdiction changes whenever a judicial circuit changes so it would be fairer to both judges and prosecutors if changes in circuit boundaries coincided with elections.”

In some counties, judges are swamped with work, said State Rep. Chad McCoy, a Republican from Bardstown. Under the amendment, the realignment of terms wouldn’t happen for another decade, so most current commonwealth’s attorneys wouldn’t be affected, McCoy said.

It could also depoliticize the judiciary, yield more experienced judges, and align prosecutors’ terms with judges’ terms, supporters say.

“It truly does raise the bar for judges,” said Karen A. Thomas, district court judge in Campbell County District Court. “Allowing the amendment to change the constitution from a two-year licensure to an eight-year licensure ensures that you have not only that experience legally, but that you have the actual experience in life that is essential to being a good judge.”

But critics say the amendment is a self-serving measure that would give the public less accountability over, and fewer opportunities to vote out, their public servants. 

“I think it makes district judges less accountable,” said State Rep. Lynn Bechler, a Republican from western Kentucky. “These are people who have to go before the voters, just as I do. The longer they’re in office, the less accountable they are, and the more difficult it is to remove a judge or attorney.”

The proposed amendment is appearing on ballots after at least 60% of legislators in both chambers of the Kentucky Legislature approved the measure.

In the House, the question passed 76-7, with 17 representatives not voting. In the Senate, the measure passed 25-7, with six senators not voting. No Democrat in either chamber voted against the measure. 

The amendment has won support from many district court judges and commonwealth’s attorneys, although the Kentucky Commonwealth’s Attorneys Association did not take an official position.

Graham Ambrose is an investigative reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. He is a Report for America corps member.