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.
Judges on the Kentucky Court of Appeals hear appealed cases from circuit and district courts across the state. The District 4, Division 2 seat has been held by Judge Denise G. Clayton, who is also the court’s Chief Judge, since 2007. Clayton is not running for reelection, and three candidates are running to replace her.
- McKenzie Cantrell, 34, has been a Democratic State Representative for District 38, covering southwest Louisville and Jefferson County, since 2016. Cantrell is an Employment Law Attorney at the nonprofit Kentucky Equal Justice Center.
- Annette Karem, 56, is an incumbent judge for District 30-1, and Chief District Court Judge for Jefferson County. She was first elected in 2006.
- Stan Whetzel, 72, is a private lawyer working in civil and appellate law.
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?
Cantrell: First, I have practiced law. Most of my practice has been dedicated to employment law, representing employees in wage and hour, breach of contract, human
trafficking and other disputes. My clients
have mostly been low income and Spanish speaking, some of the most vulnerable in our workforce. Second, I have made the law. For the past six years, I have been a member of the Kentucky House of Representatives. Being a part of crafting and passing legislation, especially as a member of the House Judiciary Committee, has given me an opportunity to work with all kinds of statutes and shape policy for our Commonwealth and court system. Third, I have taught the law as an adjunct professor at the University of Louisville law school. I have been teaching legislation and statutory interpretation, and interpreting statutes is exactly the job of an appellate judge. I have seen the lawmaking process from both a practical and academic side, and now I am ready to apply this experience as a judge.
Karem: I am the only candidate in my race who has judicial experience. One of the primary functions of a Court of Appeals judge is to evaluate and, if necessary, correct the decisions made by other judges. I have made those decisions. I recognize and understand that these are decisions that impact the lives of the people before me. In addition to my experience on the bench, I participate in various community related organizations that involve the justice system. I have an extensive background and training in cases involving Domestic Violence and am on the Domestic Violence Fatality Review Committee. As the Chief District Court Judge I serve on many committees with our justice partners including having been recently appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to the task force regarding the improvement of court notification processes. My level of experience is unmatched in my race and makes me the best candidate for the position on the Court of Appeals.
Whetzel: I am the most qualified candidate for this seat because I have practiced appellate and civil litigation law for more than thirty years, and represented individuals, decedent’s estates, small and large businesses, Fortune 500 corporations, the federal Farm Credit Banks for the states of Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, and Tennessee including many of their subsidiary associations, local governments and the Commonwealth of Kentucky, in the state and federal courts of Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee. I’m rated “AV” by Martindale- Hubbell: “A” for legal ability (“preeminent”) and “V” for ethics (“very high”). I am admitted to the Kentucky bar, the United States Supreme Court bar, and the federal district courts for Kentucky, and the Southern District of Indiana. I have excelled for years (I am told by others) in legal research and writing, which is the core work of an appellate lawyer and judge. I enjoy challenging legal work, and have been successful. I am a naturally curious person. I am diligent and attend to my responsibilities. Although I am tenacious, I always consider other viewpoints.
What is your judicial philosophy, and how will it affect your actions on the bench?
Cantrell: The biggest thing that underlies my perspective as a potential judge is my respect for our system of government. We have three branches of government, and I have already been part of one of them. I know the difference between writing the law and interpreting the law, and I know when to say what the law is or tell someone they are in the wrong forum if a legislative change is what is actually needed. One part of being a judge that is similar to my current experience as a legislator is that I am used to being accountable for the statewide implications of the work we do. I am already someone people have trusted to be their elected voice in government, and I will continue to be fair, hardworking and respectful to all.
Karem: My judicial philosophy is to listen, understand and decide. The court system’s primary responsibility is to give the parties an opportunity to be heard and have their case decided on their particular facts. Judges should allow both sides in any case the opportunity to explain their perspective, the particular facts in their case and how they believe the law applies. The Judge needs to ensure that everyone understands the process and the law in their case. Finally, judges should thoughtfully make decisions. Our community is better served if judges apply these three principles.
Whetzel: I consider an independent judicial system to be the indispensable safeguard to preserve and maintain a healthy democracy. As a private lawyer who is not beholden to the state, it is my role and extraordinary privilege to be a bridge between people and the enormous might and power of big business and governments. The purpose of the Kentucky Court of Appeals, an intermediate appellate court, is to correct prejudicial error, not to make judicial policy. That is the prerogative of the Kentucky Supreme Court. For most of us, the Court of Appeals will be our court of last resort, our last opportunity to seek the justice or relief we seek. Therefore, I consider the Court of Appeals to be the most consequential court in Kentucky. As a judge, my role is not to be an advocate for a particular person or cause, which is the lawyer’s role, but to apply the facts in the record to the law relevant to the case, correct errors, and render a correct judgment. In my opinion, a partisan or biased judge cannot be true to her or his duties. We all have our personal views, but a judge must subordinate them to her or his responsibilities. As a Judge of the Kentucky Court of Appeals, I will give my best efforts to my work and respect those who appear before me, regardless of their names, ages, race, gender, orientation, and social status.
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?
Cantrell: Judges must be confident when someone is ordered to serve time in a correctional facility that it is not a death sentence. In order for our community to have faith in our system of justice, there must be an expectation that people who have committed crimes can serve their time and eventually reenter society without the unimaginable tragedies that have happened lately. On the other hand, I also have immense sympathy for our local corrections staff, who have persevered through COVID worker shortages, overcrowding in the jail and the constant threat of overdose in what has become the state’s largest makeshift detox facility. I don’t have all of the answers, but one thing that I have demonstrated in my career that could lead to better outcomes in the jail is fighting for better pay, benefits, pension, scheduling and training for corrections staff.
Karem: It is important for a judge to use all the tools available to ensure only the most dangerous inmates and those that refuse to return to court are housed in jail. Due to covid and staffing issues, the city closed the corrections facility in Louisville that was used to house inmates but also allowed them to participate in out-of-custody counseling and continue to work. This facility was an important option for those inmates that could not participate in Home Incarceration due to housing issues. I will continue to advocate for the reopening of this facility to give judges more options when considering the bond of a defendant.
Whetzel: Persons charged with crimes and incarcerated in our jails are entitled to the presumption of innocence and the protections guaranteed by the Bill of Rights in our federal and state constitutions. As such, they are entitled to reasonably safe and habitable housing in the jails, and the active supervision and oversight of the corrections department, irrespective of their charges or claimed offenses. The actual establishment and maintenance of jails is the day-to-day responsibility of the executive branch of government, as authorized and enabled by the legislative branch. The role of the judiciary is to address and remedy credible charges that unsafe and non-habitable conditions have resulted in the deaths and injuries of incarcerated persons in our care. The judiciary directs, by judicial orders, the restoration of reasonably safe and habitable conditions, and the redress of those injuries. The recent, very concerning, reports of deaths and unsafe conditions at the Louisville Metro Detention Center raise serious questions about the degree to which government’s constitutional responsibilities to incarcerated persons are being fulfilled, and what measures can be taken to remedy such conditions.