Kentucky is one of only ten states that elects judges at every level of its court system through nonpartisan elections. Judges in the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, Circuit Courts and Family Courts are elected to eight-year terms, while District judges are elected to four-year terms.
Nine of Jefferson County’s 43 judicial elections have three or more candidates this year, subjecting them to primary elections on May 17 to determine who will advance to the general election on November 8.
Kentucky’s Circuit Courts are trial courts of general jurisdiction, covering felony criminal cases and large claims civil litigation. The Circuit 30, Division 7 seat has been held by Judge Audra Eckerle since 2007. Eckerle is running for the District 4, Division 1 seat on the Court of Appeals, and three candidates are running to fill her Circuit Court seat.
- Melissa Logan Bellows, 44, is a private lawyer working in corporate law.
- Critt Cunningham, 44, is an Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney and Deputy Division Chief of the Violent Crime Unit.
- Theodore “Ted” Shouse, 54, is criminal defense attorney who organized a group of lawyers to represent indicted protesters in 2020.
WFPL News sent a three-question survey to every candidate for judicial office in the nine races with primary elections impacting Jefferson County. Some candidates did not respond in time to be included; responses have been edited for clarity and length.
What makes you the most qualified candidate for this judgeship?
Bellows: Throughout 17 years of experience, over 5 years as staff attorney for Judge Conrad, I have the experience to be a superb Judge. Working closely on many trials, motion hours and drug Court, I know what it takes to be a good Judge, having gained invaluable experience from a Judge’s perspective. After working for Judge Conrad, I worked as a Plaintiff’s Attorney in insurance subrogation and then later mortgage litigation. I have gained the tools and experience to apply the law fairly and accordingly. I shall adhere to the three pillars of every capable judge: Integrity, Impartiality and Independence.
Cunningham: I’ve been a practicing attorney for nearly twenty years. I have always fought for the little guy. Most of my time as been spent in the courtroom where as a Violent Crimes Prosecutor I fight for victims. I have worked in Juvenile Court where I tried to keep at risk youth out of the adult system, out of gangs, and away from guns. As a civil attorney, I worked to help the elderly and their families deal with difficult end of life decisions both practical and financial. After, the mortgage collapse, I was Commissioned by Governor Steve Beshear, to regulate money lenders on behalf of the people of Kentucky, where my primary area of regulation was mortgage lenders. I have handled hundreds of Circuit Court cases. I have demonstrated competency and understanding of the courtroom. I know how those with knowledge of the courthouse feel when they enter the courtroom, but I also know how outsiders like victims and their families feel. I want to be everyone’s judge.
Shouse: For 23 years I have represented mostly economically disadvantaged people facing serious criminal charges — as a public defender for 11 years and in private practice for 12 years. Circuit Court is primarily a trial court; I have tried cases from one end of Kentucky to the other. I have seen good judging across Kentucky and I want to use what I have learned to improve the court system in Jefferson County. In 2020 I organized a group of more than 100 volunteer lawyers to represent people arrested protesting for racial justice. My experience will allow me to bring a new lens, one that hasn’t been there before, to the Circuit Court bench. I plan on establishing a mental health court as soon as I take office, pushing for a rule change regarding how search warrants are obtained, and advocating for increased transparency in the courts.
What is your judicial philosophy, and how will it affect your actions on the bench?
Bellows: My philosophy is that everyone shall have a voice in Court. I will listen diligently to each side and decide what is best based on current law. With such high caseloads, being organized is key to a good turnaround and courtroom flow.
Cunningham: I believe in real justice and I believe in common sense. I plan on following the law impartially. I plan on respecting the prowess of the attorneys before me. I am a student of the law and approach the law with humility. I do not have to be the smartest person in the room, but I do have to control the room. My job will be to step out of the way and let attorneys do their job. To do that, I must know the procedural and evidentiary rules backwards and forwards. In the criminal arena, I am keenly aware that I will bear the added responsibility of protecting victims, their families, and the community from harm; additionally, I must ensure that the Constitution is in no way infringed upon and that defendants receive a fair trial. These core beliefs will affect my every action on the bench.
Shouse: I’m not sure a circuit court judge should have a judicial philosophy. As a trial court judge I will be bound by the rules, statutes and case law of Kentucky. Judicial philosophies are generally reserved for appellate judges. I will say this: my guiding principles will be equity, dignity, and love for our neighbors. Everyone must be treated equally. I will recognize the inherent dignity of all people who appear before me. I believe an honest love for our neighbors will improve the administration of justice. And by love, I mean the honesty to see things as they really are and the commitment to effect real change in addressing the systemic racial and economic inequities of our court system.
In light of recent reports regarding deaths and unsafe conditions at the Louisville Metro Detention Center, what is the role of the judiciary in maintaining a safe and responsible jail?
Bellows: We must ensure that the people who work there are properly paid and that everyone is closely monitored. The situation demands good leadership from the top, and those in management there should be ever vigilant. The jail must be fully staffed and the influx of illegal drugs must be stemmed. Also, I would employ home incarceration for non-violent offenders, including drug offenders.
Cunningham: Paradoxically, most judicial power comes from restraint, and it has from the beginning (Marbury v. Madison). There are many problems our society faces, but not all of them have a judicial answer. I care very much about welfare of the jail staff and the individuals detained there. As a prosecutor, I successfully convicted crooked jail staff and criminals whose drug ring was bringing poison into our jail. I know first-hand some of the many difficulties confronting the jail. If civil litigation or a criminal case concerning the jail comes before me, I will guarantee that the law is followed. At the end of the day, the jail is an executive branch creature and not directly supervised by the court, but is subject to media scrutiny and the votes of the people. A well-run courtroom will alleviate some of the overcrowding that generates poor or unsafe jail conditions. By keeping cases on track and by keeping my own courtroom organized, I will be doing my part to improve the jail.
Shouse: First, the judges of Jefferson County should take a hard look at how bails are being set. The jail is overcrowded with people who have not been convicted of anything. People who have not been charged with violent offenses are languishing in an understaffed, overcrowded jail because they can not afford to pay their bail. This is not fair. This is not just. There is a host of ways to monitor people before their trials that do not include incarceration. Second, judges have a responsibility to insure the safety of the jailed people who have cases pending before them. Judges should be keeping close tabs on the functioning of the jail. Eight people have died in the jail in less than six months. Those eight people all had cases pending before some court, before some judge. In the current crisis I think every judge in Jefferson County should review their cases to see if there are defendants charged with non-violent offenses who could be released on a form of closely monitored release until the jail can be made safe.