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Ky. Supreme Court Candidates Differ On Experience In Hopkinsville Forum

Jennifer P. Brown
Hoptown Chronicle

The two candidates for the District 1 seat on the Kentucky Supreme Court agree that experience is an important consideration for voters, but they disagree on the kind of experience that matters.

State Sen. Whitney Westerfield, of Crofton, and Kentucky Court of Appeals Justice Christopher Shea Nickell, of Paducah, made their arguments during a candidate forum Wednesday at the Hopkinsville Municipal Center. 

“I became a judge the same year that Sen. Westerfield was sworn in as an attorney, about 13 years ago,” Nickell said. “Before that … I practiced law for 22 years.”

Nickell said he represented clients with disability and workers comp claims, along with a wide range of other individuals and businesses. As an appeals court judge, he has been part of 2,800 opinions and wrote 965 opinions himself. Only 21 of his opinions have been overturned, he said.

Westerfield said his seven years in the legislature, where he chairs Senate Judiciary Committee, has been “invaluable.” And he challenged Nickell on how to compare their resumes.

“There’s no question that I haven’t practiced law as long as my opponent has. But I don’t think that’s the determining factor,” Westerfield said, stressing his private practice, and his experience as an assistant commonwealth’s attorney before he became a state senator. 

“I think it’s important that we have someone who knows what it’s like to practice law today instead of having a court with yet another member who hasn’t worked with a client since before the iPhone existed,” he said.

Beyond their differences on what kind of experience matters for a Supreme Court justice, Westerfield and Nickell generally agreed on other issues they have stressed in the race, including conservativism, religion and judicial restraint.

“I believe we need a justice who will apply the law as it is written, and not venture outside the law or rely on things that have not been passed by the legislature,” Westerfield said. “What we have around the country and what we have here in Kentucky … we have judicial activism.”

Nickell, noting that only two percent of his Court of Appeals opinions have been overturned, said, “It’s a record that I’ll stand on. It’s a record that demonstrates to you that I do follow the rule of law and practice judicial restraint.”

Kentucky’s judicial races are non-partisan, but candidates are allowed to state their party affiliation during the campaign. 

Westerfield and Nickell are both Republicans and stress their conservative beliefs. But Westerfield said voters should know that Nickell changed his party affiliation to become a Republican shortly before filing to run for Supreme Court. Nickell acknowledged the switch and said he became a Republican to be honest with himself and voters about his long-held beliefs.

As proof of his conservative credentials, Nickell said he was endorsed by the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr. in his first run for the Court of Appeals. He said he is pro-life, pro-Second Amendment and a member of the NRA.

Westerfield said, “You all know where my philosophical approaches are on protecting the unborn, protecting our Second Amendment rights, protecting crime victims’ rights through Marsy’s law … every step of the way I’ve upheld the rule of law.”

Marsy’s Law, which Whitfield advanced in the General Assembly, would have provided more rights to crime victims, including prior notification of more court proceedings. Voters approved a constitutional amendment favoring Marsy’s Law last year, but the Kentucky Supreme Court later ruled the wording on the ballot was too vague.

Nickell made several references to religion. He said as a young person he admired ministers and attorneys and ultimately decided to pursue law because he believed he could also have a ministry in the law by “having an impact in the lives of people.”

Both said they believe Kentucky judges should be elected rather than appointed.  

The Hopkinsville-Christian County League of Women Voters sponsored the forum. League member Stephanie Bolen, who is an assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Christian County, was the moderator.

Nickell and Westerfield are running to fill the unexpired term of Bill Cunningham, who retired with two years left in his term as the District 1 justice. The district includes the 24 western-most counties in Kentucky.

At the conclusion of the forum, the candidates encouraged voters to look for their race on the ballot. If a voter decides to cast a straight-party ballot, they will still need to record a separate vote in the Supreme Court race because it is non-partisan. 

The election is Nov. 5.

(A video of the forum is available on the city’s Facebook page.)

This story originally appeared on the Hoptown Chronicle.

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