Update 5/9: This post was updated to include candidate Tim Buckley’s survey responses.
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 9 seat has been held by Judge Jessica Green since February 2022 to fill a vacancy. Green is running for the Circuit’s Division 6 seat, and five candidates are running to fill the Division 9 seat.
- Tim Buckley is a former Senior Staff Attorney for the Court of Appeals Fourth District.
- Sarah Clay, 38, is a solo practitioner in both criminal defense and civil litigation, former public defender for Jefferson County.
- Nichole Compton, 42, is a general practice attorney with experience in criminal, civil and family law at both the trial and appellate court levels.
- Alan Lani, 44, is in private practice in case management and litigation support for other law firms.
- Todd Lewis, 52, is in private practice in criminal defense and litigation, former Director of Special Prosecutions for the Kentucky’s Attorney General office.
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?
Buckley: I have worked in the courts for over 33 years, as a Circuit Court staff attorney, I worked closely with judges on pending cases, researching the law and applying it in a variety of legal fields. As a District Court Trial Commissioner, was was directly responsible for overnight calls on Emergency Protective Orders, Emergency Custody Orders, and Mental Inquest Warrants. As a Court of Appeals Staff Attorney, I have handled appeals from circuit courts across Kentucky on every issue addressed in circuit court. My experience gives me a deep understanding of the legal and procedural aspects facing a circuit court judge.
Clay: I don’t just have legal experience – I have the right legal experience for the bench. I’ve been a trial attorney here for nearly ten years, and have practiced in every courtroom in Jefferson County. I spent the first 4 years of my legal career as an Assistant Public Defender here in Louisville, where I represented some of Jefferson County’s most vulnerable citizens. I also served as the PD for Jefferson County’s first Misdemeanor Drug Court , which I helped launch in 2015. In 2018, I served on the planning committee to launch the Family Recovery Court, and have worked extensively in Mental Health Court. I have managed my own law firm since 2016, where I focus on representing disadvantaged clients in criminal and civil cases. I also serve as a guardian ad litem in Family Court, representing low-income parents and children. Equal Justice is not just a talking point for me – I’ve spent my entire career fighting for equality in the justice system. I plan to do the same on the bench.
Compton: I want to restore faith in our justice system and integrity to our bench. I don’t bear the right name or have alliances, allegiances or endorsements creating any impropriety or sense of debt. I am a hardworking lawyer with 16 years’ experience who was a judicial extern and certified mediator before that. With cases in many areas and counties in every level of KY trial court, service as a GAL in circuit family courts, I also won a published appellate case and other accolades. I’m an arbitrator who appreciates how alternative dispute resolution benefits the process and aids in ensuring justice. As a divorced single mother now raising my 7-year old grandson, I am firm but caring and put complex ideas into plain words. I’m an efficient, hardworking entrepreneur with creative solutions, customer service and a belief in treating people with dignity. Challenges excite me. This will not be a 9-5, but a daily mission and personal challenge to ensure access to justice and fairness for all.
Lani: I have extensive experience over more than 20 years, serving as a Senior Staff Attorney to the Court of Appeals, as a Hearing Officer / Administrative Law Judge for the Tennessee Department of Revenue, and as a private attorney in both small and large law firms.
Lewis: The selection of a circuit court judge should be based on practical experience in circuit court, and community engagement. I have been practicing law for 25 years, across a wider range of practice areas than any of the candidates running for my division; and more than most of the candidates in other divisions. Of those 25 years, 12 was handling felony criminal trials in circuit courts as an Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney in Louisville, and then statewide as Director of Special Prosecutions in the Attorney General’s Office. I founded the state’s first dedicated Elder Abuse Unit, and oversaw election law enforcement. In the last ten years, I have run my own practice, handling criminal, civil, and administrative litigation, and appeals. In the community, I founded an expungement program for the poor; founded a fundraising arm of the public law library; have served as my neighborhood president in Old Louisville, and represent poor people as appointed counsel in criminal cases.
What is your judicial philosophy, and how will it affect your actions on the bench?
Buckley: My judicial philosophy is to apply the law impartially to all parties without favor. I passionately believe that the rule of law is the only guarantee of protecting the rights of all parties, even in light of the known inequities in society. I also believe that the rule of law requires a judge to treat all people who come before the court with fairness and respect.
Clay: I believe that every person involved in the court system deserves to be treated fairly and equally under the law, and with dignity and respect, regardless of class, socio-economic status, race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, faith, disability status, or age. I believe in Equal Justice, but know that we have to make a conscious effort toward it every day in order to make it a reality. As a judge, I will make decisions based on the law. But I will do so while also keeping in mind that everyone who appears before me is a human being deserving of dignity and respect.
Compton: Anyone can be elected. But good judges require more. A good judge must have the following, and besides legal experience that includes practice in every level of state trial court, federally and administrative tribunals and non-litigation experience teaching as adjunct, owning businesses, SBA attorney advisor and work in-house for a Fortune 500, I bring all of the following:
- Judicial Temperament with the ability to apply law to facts, to understand how a judicial decision will affect the human beings appearing before the court and all stakeholders, patience, open-mindedness, courtesy, tact, firmness, understanding, fairness & humility
- Intelligence and Common Sense to quickly assimilate data, making exact decisions
- Ethical personally & professionally
- Legal Courage & Integrity
- Life & Law Experience
- Continuously adding to legal education
- Ability to Communicate and ability to listen
- Community ties and pro bono contributions
- Character, independence, uncompromised
Lani: I am judicially conservative in the sense that I do not believe judges should be the primary deciders of policy questions. Particularly as a trial court judge, my role is to apply existing precedent to the cases before me, and only in true issues of first impression would my decision shape or change Kentucky law.
Lewis: My judicial philosophy is first and foremost to treat all persons before the court with dignity, respect, and the compassionate understanding that everyone comes from different backgrounds. Consistent with the ethical obligations regarding contact with parties and attorneys, the judges could be more involved in ensuring that those convicted of crime are given a chance to reform and succeed, even if it must also come with a penalty. My judicial philosophy also dictates that it is inappropriate to run as a candidate for a judicial office based on funding and endorsements from special interest groups and PACs. While this activity may be technically lawful under the Citizens United case, it does not mean that it is a good idea. It does not promote transparency in elections, particularly when electing persons who are expected to be free from such outside influences.
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?
Buckley: The grand jury issues regular reports on conditions at LMDC to the general term of the circuit court. While circuit court judges do not have direct oversight of over jail conditions, they have the ability to monitor those conditions and pass on recommendations. Circuit Court Judges may also take jail conditions into consideration in decisions regarding bail and sentencing, including whether to grant probation and what conditions to attach to conditional release.
Clay: Judges set bonds in criminal cases, and are thus in the position of deciding which defendants go to jail and which go home. Those bond decisions directly impact the population at the jail, which affects the safety of everyone at the jail. It is imperative that those bond rulings are made thoughtfully, while taking into account all of the relevant factors involved in a given case. Dangerous people should be in jail to protect the community, but we can’t jail people just because we’re mad at them. And no one should stay in jail solely because they cannot afford the cost of their freedom. I believe strongly in the need for bail reform, but judges don’t make the law. However, we already have several tools that can alleviate the strain cash bail places on those who cannot afford to pay to get out of jail – tools that should be used more often in non-violent and drug offense cases. Those include pretrial monitoring, home incarceration, bail credit, unsecured bonds, surety bonds, etc.
Compton: A precept of our legal system says we are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Yet appalling reports continue. Yet, even if found guilty, defendants are people and a part of our community. Each is someone’s child, brother, sister, parent or loved one and must be treated humanely. Judges do have an effect on what happens in our jails, even if not overtly noticed.
As a lawyer, I represent all walks of life and value having good customer service, community involvement, not just in my free legal clinics and pro bono work, but with at-risk youth, recovering addicts and citizens restarting life after prison. I’ve personally seen maltreatment of a jailed relative with mental illness. As a judge proudly born here, I’ll continue to be connected to my community, involved where I can help make a difference, and aware of what is occurring. I will be keen to the appearance of inmates before me and make it a point to advocate for their well-being and work with the administrators to ensure safety.
Lani: The role of the judiciary is to decide cases which come before it, and we cannot issue advisory opinions. As it relates to prisoner claims (whether under 42 USC 1983 and/or the Eighth Amendment or their state law equivalents) it is the trial judge’s responsibility to consider each case on the evidence presented. Having seen several prisoner claims (presented pro se) at the Court of Appeals, I can state from experience that it is important to see that the meritorious claims be heard on the evidence.
Lewis: (1) The legislature, not the judiciary, has the authority to alter the current cash bail system, and they should make this issue a priority. The administrative arm of the courts (AOC) should be prepared to provide any and all information needed for legislators to study this issue and make necessary changes to the law. The courts will be charged with carrying out the terms of any such changes. (2) Additionally, the Commonwealth’s Attorney has the authority to request that the court empanel a special grand jury to review such situations, obtain evidence and witness accounts, prepare reports (and of course issue indictments if any crimes are being committed in the handling of the jail population). This is not a new idea. (3) the Corrections workforce needs to be adequately funded. No answer here is intended to indicate that I will rule a particular way on any particular issue which may come before circuit court — and there certainly are issues connected to this which could.
Update 4/27: This post was updated to include more information about candidate Nichole Compton’s experience and background.