Bill Changing Venue For Lawsuits Against Ky. Officials Advances

Jan 12, 2021

Credit J. Tyler Franklin

Republican leaders of the Kentucky legislature want to change which judges hear lawsuits against state officials and agencies.

Currently those lawsuits are heard in Franklin Circuit Court, headquartered in Frankfort, but under House Bill 3 they would be heard in circuit courts located around the state.

The measure passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday and can now be considered by the full Senate.

During the hearing, Sen. Phillip Wheeler, a Republican from Pikeville, said the bill would make it easier for people in far corners of the state to follow up on legal challenges.

“When an individual is aggrieved by the state, many times they have far less resources than the state to be required to journey long distances. It’s a great burden to go to Franklin County on many occasions,” Wheeler said.

Republicans have for years railed against Franklin Circuit judges, accusing them of being politically- biased because they are elected by the citizens of Franklin County, where the state capital is located.

Sen. Whitney Westerfield, a Republican from Crofton, said Franklin Circuit shouldn’t have “outsized significance.”

“It gives people in Franklin County an extra voice that none of the other people, none of the other voters in 119 other counties get to have,” Westerfield said.

Former GOP Gov. Matt Bevin repeatedly lashed out at Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd, calling him incompetent and accusing him of being a “Democratic operative” following a series of rulings against him.

Now, during a legislative session in which the Republican-led legislature is advancing several bills thwarting Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s power and boosting their own, the effort to change the venue for lawsuits against the state appears to have more momentum than before.

Wheeler, an attorney, said he has “nothing against” the Franklin Circuit judges.

“But I’ve also been in front of great judges throughout the commonwealth who’ve shown equal knowledge of the law and compassion,” Wheeler said.

Tom Fitzgerald, executive director of the Kentucky Resources Council, said there would be unintended consequences if the bill passes.

“There is a great value in the familiarity that those judges have with complex constitutional and administrative issues which benefit all parties. Under this bill, some of that would be lost,” Fitzgerald said.

“Whatever frustration you or members of the general assembly may feel, rather than create a solution to the problem that doesn’t exist, let’s allow the current rules to apply as they have for many, many years.”

Sen. Karen Berg, a Democrat from Louisville, voted against the bill, saying that Republican lawmakers were trying to limit the state’s Judicial Branch.

“When you’re talking about limiting the powers of government to spend time and energy trying to control the other branches of government, I find that to be problematic at its core,” Berg said.

The state House of Representatives already passed a version of the bill that would have randomly assigned judges to hear lawsuits against the state, but the committee amended it on Tuesday to allow the cases to be heard in the home county of the person filing the lawsuit.

If the bill passes out of the Senate, the House would have to agree to any changes for it to become law.