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Bill seeks to send big legal cases to statewide judges

February 25, 2019

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Republican lawmakers overrode objections from Kentucky’s chief justice on Monday and endorsed a bill that would let state officials redirect big legal cases away from a circuit judge in Frankfort who has been lambasted by GOP Gov. Matt Bevin for some of his rulings.

The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced the bill after hearing competing presentations from Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr. and Senate President Robert Stivers, the bill’s lead sponsor.

“It’s a serious matter,” Minton told the panel. “That’s why I really have taken the unusual step of coming here to talk to you all about this and implore you: Don’t do this to the system.”

But Stivers, R-Manchester, said it’s within the legislature’s authority to set policy on judicial venue issues. The bill would change the system that now puts big state government cases and constitutional challenges before circuit judges elected by voters in one area, he said.

“Doesn’t that give undue weight to the judges that sit in that circuit, or to the voters ... in that county?” committee Chairman Whitney Westerfield said in backing the bill.

The bill reflects long-held concerns from some Kentucky lawmakers that circuit judges in Franklin County Circuit Court wield too much power in deciding cases of statewide consequence. Stivers called it a “super circuit.”

The measure would set up a process to avoid having cases heard in Franklin County.

In a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a state law or regulation, any state officials who are named as defendants could request a change of venue, triggering a random drawing to determine where the case would be heard. Those cases now often end up in Franklin County Circuit Court in Frankfort — the seat of state government. Several rulings from that circuit have gone against Bevin and the GOP-led legislature in recent years, including last year’s decision by Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd that struck down a public pension law. The state Supreme Court upheld his ruling.

Even before that ruling, Bevin went on talk radio and called Shepherd an “incompetent hack.”

Shepherd’s name did not come up Monday during the lengthy committee hearing. Stivers said he wasn’t pushing for the bill at the Bevin administration’s request.

“I’ve really not had any discussions with them in a while,” the Senate leader said. “This is something based on events that have taken place over many years.”

Minton noted that the bill’s supporters have signaled it’s aimed at one judicial circuit, and “perhaps one judge in one circuit.” But he warned the bill would affect judges statewide, adding that it “conjured up a hurricane to extinguish a match.”

The chief justice warned that such a “litigation lottery” could result in cases being shifted from one end of Kentucky to the other. Judges would have to put other cases on hold and possibly drive across the state to handle the cases involving state agencies, he said.

“This is a huge change for our judges,” he said. “The fiscal impact is just incredible.”

By giving state officials the automatic right to force a venue change, Minton said the bill would give government officials “rights that other Kentuckians don’t have.” The chief justice said that would “be concerning to me.”

The chief justice also said the bill is so broad that it would allow state officials embroiled in personal civil cases such as divorces or contract disputes to demand venue changes. Stivers said he would respond to the concern by offering a Senate floor amendment to tighten the measure.

Under the bill, state officials would have 20 days after receiving a legal complaint to give notice that they want a venue change. The circuit court clerk in the jurisdiction where the lawsuit was filed would later select the new venue through a “random lottery draw.”

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The legislation is Senate Bill 2.

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