Appellate Court Candidates Talk Judicial Philosophy, Partisanship Ahead Of General Election
This report is part of a series produced by WKMS News highlighting races appearing on the 2020 general election ballot. Other parts of this series published thus far include an interview with Congressman James Comer, a Q&A with the 42nd Judicial Circuit Family Court Judge candidates, voter guide for state legislative races, and a report on the proposed constitutional amendment for judicial reform.
A 2019 general election victory by Court of Appeals Judge Christopher Shea Nickell for the Kentucky Supreme Court seat previously held by Justice Bill Cunningham created a vacancy on the appellate court set to be filled by one of two candidates appearing on the 2020 ballot. Both candidates replied to a pre-election survey distributed by WKMS News.
Judge Chris McNeill
Governor Andy Beshear appointed McNeill to serve as appellate court judge in April before the June 23 primary election, where he earned nearly 33,000 votes. McNeill previously served as the directing attorney for the Paducah trial office of the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy. The DPA is the commonwealth’s public defender agency, responsible for representing indigent defendants in criminal cases. He is a graduate of Murray State University and the Salmon P. Chase College of Law at Northern Kentucky University.
Hines’s legal experience includes working as a staff attorney for the Kentucky Court of Appeals, where she helped to draft appellate decisions and served under two judges. She is a veteran of the United States Air Force, earning an officer commission through the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps while enrolled at the University of Kentucky College of Law. She earned a bachelor’s degree at Murray State University before receiving her juris doctor at UK.
Politicization of Judicial Races
Both candidates broadly describe themselves as “conservative.” Both candidates agree to the importance of a non-partisan judiciary. McNeill and Hines are active in their respective churches, and both said although a religious test is not a component of a judicial race, voters deserve to know personal facts about a candidate including their faith.
“The Kentucky Constitution is very clear. It says that a judicial race ‘shall be non-partisan’, and I take the Constitution and the canon of judicial ethics very seriously. Also, as a judge, I am a state employee. I have been meticulous in creating a firewall between any state resources (i.e. like email) and my campaign. If the race has been politicized, it hasn’t been by me or my campaign. The judicial canons also say that a judge or a judicial candidate 'shall not seek, accept, or use the endorsement of a political organization,’ and I have adhered to those rules. I am proud to have support from officials and everyday citizens of both parties. I have been warmly received by everyone when I have had the chance to speak to groups across the political spectrum. Like the authors of the Constitution, voters tell me they are more concerned with having judges who are experienced and who are honest and fair than someone who adheres to political expediency instead of the law,” McNeill told WKMS.
“In Kentucky, judicial races are nonpartisan to keep judges above political influence. Judges are called to be impartial and unbiased. Judges and judicial candidates are, however, allowed to express certain personal views as a matter of their first amendment right to freedom of speech as well as to educate curious voters. As a veteran, I took an oath to support and defend our Constitution and certainly appreciate the freedoms it grants. I do not feel the race for this Kentucky Court of Appeals seat has been politicized,” Hines responded.
McNeill and Hines consider themselves judicial constructionists. They agree the Constitution should only be interpreted and judges should not legislate from the bench.
"My judicial philosophy is pretty straight forward. I strictly follow the Constitution and the language of the law and do not make law from the bench. I always try to be fair and rule according to the law.,” McNeill said.
“I believe in strict construction of our laws and in judicial restraint. I also believe in separation of powers; our courts are not meant to act as a second legislative branch. The Court of Appeals, in particular, is a court of correction rather than a court of policy. It is the job of the appellate court to ensure the lower courts have acted within their authority and accurately applied the relevant law to the unique facts of each case,” Hines explained.
Ruling Fairly Despite Personal Beliefs
The Kentucky Court of Appeals holds original jurisdiction in only a few areas, meaning the bulk of the court’s responsibility is hearing appeals from lower courts. McNeill and Hines said their experience and personal beliefs will help them to make fair decisions, but they will put aside any biases to make equitable rulings.
"My parents raised me with rock-solid western Kentucky values, a deep faith in God, respect for life, and love of family. It’s those values and faith that give me the strength to stand up to social and political pressures on the bench and do what is right,” McNeill said.
“This is absolutely essential. I have had the honor and pleasure to work for the Court of Appeals since 2017 for two incredible judges. I have worked on hundreds of cases while working for the Court of Appeals and know what makes a good decision. Being a good judge is a lot like being a good Christian. You must realize that it's not about you, it is about doing what is right. There is simply no room in judicial decisions for personal opinions,” Hines said.
Some responses have been edited for length and clarity.