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Judicial watchdog criticizes Beshear’s involvement in Kentucky Supreme Court election

Justice Scales and books and wooden gavel
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Justice Scales and books and wooden gavel

Letter warns governor’s endorsement blurs judicial, partisan lines in nonpartisan race. Goodwine emphasizes her record of ‘impartiality, fairness and justice.’

FRANKFORT — A judicial watchdog is raising concerns about Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s endorsement of a candidate in a state Supreme Court race, an election that is supposed to be nonpartisan under Kentucky’s Constitution.

Judge Pamela Goodwine
Judge Pamela Goodwine

The second-term governor will be the special guest at a fundraiser later this week for Supreme Court candidate Pamela Goodwine, a Kentucky Court of Appeals judge, according to an event flier. This November, Goodwine will compete with Erin Izzo, an attorney from Lexington, for the 5th Supreme Court District seat held by Chief Justice Laurance VanMeter who is not seeking reelection.

The Kentucky Judicial Campaign Conduct Committee — a private, nonprofit group formed in response to federal court decisions striking down restrictions on partisanship in judicial campaigns — sent a letter to Goodwine on Monday expressing concern about Beshear’s endorsement. It said executive branch members “should not be involved in judicial elections.”

The committee said that if Goodwine touts Beshear’s endorsement, it could “further blur the line between judicial and partisan elections, and have the effect of eroding public confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary.”

Goodwine said in response to the committee that the governor’s endorsement is “based upon my record of impartiality, fairness and justice.”

She added that her commitment to the judicial branch’s nonpartisan nature includes attending Republican and Democratic events, such as the Kentucky Democratic Party’s Forward Together Dinner last week, as well as a Jessamine County Republican Women’s Club meeting, Fayette County Republican Party Reagan Day Dinner and a Franklin County Democratic Executive Committee meeting.

“Upon election to the Kentucky Supreme Court, I will continue to adhere to the highest ethical standards and, if faced with a situation where my impartiality was reasonably called into question, I would carefully consider the circumstances and if necessary recuse myself to ensure the integrity of the judicial process,” Goodwine said.

Earlier in the day, Beshear also defended his endorsement of Goodwine during an interview with the Lantern, saying she would be “a great Supreme Court judge.”

Flier announcing Goodwine fundraiser with “special guest” Gov. Andy Beshear.
Flier announcing Goodwine fundraiser with “special guest” Gov. Andy Beshear.

“Being a former practicing lawyer, I know a really great Supreme Court justice when I see it and we need quality justices,” Beshear said. “I think it’s also time for the first Black woman on the Supreme Court, and she’s earned it.”

The Lantern asked Beshear if his involvement in Goodwine’s race and his opposition to Amendment 2, a constitutional amendment to allow the General Assembly to fund nonpublic schools, could be politicizing those races.

“My goal isn’t to politicize either of those races,” Beshear said. “It’s just to win them both.”

Beshear first signaled support for Goodwine in March. She was the lone nonpartisan candidate among five endorsements made by Beshear’s PAC, In This Together. The rest were Democrats.

Gov. Andy Beshear and his father, former Gov. Steve Beshear, left, celebrated last year on election night.
Kentucky Lantern
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Austin Anthony
 Gov. Andy Beshear and his father, former Gov. Steve Beshear, left, celebrated last year on election night.

Goodwine attended the Kentucky Democratic Party’s Forward Together Dinner in Louisville held Friday night on the eve of the party’s state convention. Goodwine mingled with the party faithful and received glowing endorsements in speeches from the governor and his father, former Gov. Steve Beshear.

“And while it’s a nonpartisan race, this year we’re going to make some history. We’re going to elect the first Black woman as a Supreme Court justice,” the governor said to roaring applause.

On Monday, Beshear said Goodwine appeared at the Democrats’ dinner as a nonpartisan candidate because she “wants to reach out to everyone.”

The Kentucky Judicial Campaign Conduct Committee expressed concern about Beshear’s endorsement in its letter, arguing that Beshear’s involvement in her campaign could violate the section of the Kentucky Constitution that establishes nonpartisan judicial races.

“The intent of that section is to separate the judiciary from partisan politics, and maintaining that separation has long been a major interest of our Committee, which is made up of Democrats, Republicans and independents. We have expressed our concerns to the governor, and now we express them to you,” the letter said.

“The Executive Branch often appears before the Kentucky Supreme Court. This could present an appearance of conflict, if not actual conflict, for any justice who was supported by the sitting governor. While a justice may recuse from a case, the governor appoints the temporary replacement justice. So, we think members of the Executive Branch, especially the governor, should not be involved in judicial elections,” the committee said in its letter to Goodwine.

The committee requested a response from Goodwine before publishing the letter and her response on its website.

In her response, Goodwine said the most qualified candidates “receive endorsements from a wide array of individuals and organizations based upon their records of exemplary service and any person or organization could potentially be called before any member of the judiciary.”

Goodwine also said: “Throughout my 25 years of dedicated service as a judge, I have earned respect from members of all political parties as well as a solid reputation for serving with the utmost honesty, integrity, ethics, impartiality, fairness and justice for all. I am committed to continuing to demonstrate these principles on the Kentucky Supreme Court and remaining unbiased in my decision making.

“Having served as a judge for over two decades and as a candidate for the Kentucky Supreme Court, I take ethical considerations very seriously and take to heart the importance of maintaining impartiality and upholding the integrity of the judiciary. I have dedicated my life and career to serving with the highest ethical standards and base each of my judicial decisions on the law and the merits of each case.”

Two years ago, the committee rebuked Joe Fischer, a former Republican state representative, for running an openly partisan campaign for state Supreme Court.

Kentucky judges have been linked to partisan politics in the past. Last year, Franklin Circuit Court Judge Phillip Shepherdtransferred a lawsuit filed by the Kentucky Education Association after former Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron questioned Shepherd’s political contributions.

Before that, Republican Senate President Robert Stivers hosted a fundraiser for Joe Bilby who was challenging Shepherd.

Letter from Kentucky Judicial Campaign Conduct Committee to Judge Pamela Goodwine
Letter from Kentucky Judicial Campaign Conduct Committee to Judge Pamela Goodwine

In 2016, a U.S. district judge struck down some of Kentucky’s judicial conduct rules aimed at keeping judges and judicial candidates from expressing partisan loyalties.

The 5th Supreme Court District is made up of Bourbon, Clark, Fayette, Franklin, Jessamine, Madison, Scott and Woodford counties. Beshear won seven of those eight counties in the 2023 general election.

This story was originally published by the Kentucky Lantern.

McKenna Horsley covers state politics for the Kentucky Lantern. She previously worked for newspapers in Huntington, West Virginia, and Frankfort, Kentucky. She is from northeastern Kentucky.
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