Kentucky Constitutional Amendment Seeks To Extend Judiciary Terms, Experience Requirements

Oct 12, 2020

Credit screenshot Kentucky Sample Ballot / Kentucky Secretary of State

Kentuckians are voting on a proposed change to the state constitution that would extend terms for commonwealth’s attorneys and district court judges, as well as raise the experience requirement to become a district court judge.

The measure is branded “Constitutional Amendment 2” and appears alongside an amendment seeking to codify a crime victim’s bill of rights into the constitution, commonly known as Marsy’s Law. The Kentucky Supreme Court in 2019 voided an iteration of Marsy’s Law passed in 2018, with the high court ruling that proposed amendments to the constitution must appear on the ballot with their full text. Both Marsy’s Law and the judicial reform amendment are presented as a question alongside the proposed full revision to the commonwealth’s governing document (view sample ballots for all Kentucky counties here).

A district court in Kentucky is considered a court of “limited jurisdiction.” Their caseload most notably consists of criminal misdemeanors and civil cases involving $5,000 or less. Traffic offenses, probate of wills and felony preliminary hearings are also under the purview of the district court. In judicial circuits without a family court division, the district court judge may also hear cases involving family issues (child abuse, domestic violence, etc.). 

Under the current version of the state constitution, district court judges serve four-year terms and an attorney must hold Kentucky licensure for two years before seeking a district court judgeship. Constitutional Amendment Two would double the term length to eight years, and increase the experience requirement to eight years. 

The Kentucky District Judges Association is encouraging Kentuckians to “Raise The Bar” by voting “yes” on the proposed amendment. Christian County Chief District Court Judge J. Foster Cotthoff is the president of the association. He said it’s important that district court judges have the same level of experience as the other divisions of the judiciary.

“You want somebody with experience,” Cotthoff said. “You want somebody who’s had that life experience, that legal experience. You want candidates who have that and this amendment puts us on par with circuit, family, Court of Appeals and Supreme Court as far as that experience requirement.”

Cotthoff said it’s important for voters to fully understand the amendment before casting their vote. He said the measure appears on the back of ballots in most jurisdictions.

“We’re the last thing on the ballot from what I know...obviously we’re asking that people vote ‘Yes’ on that because I do think that a more experienced judiciary benefits all of Kentucky. It doesn’t just benefit our association, it benefits all Kentuckians who are gonna end up in the court system,” Cotthoff said. 

Graves County District Court Judge Deborah Crooks supports the amendment even though she said she won’t personally benefit from the extended term. She said a more experienced judiciary benefits all Kentuckians.

“I’m not only the district judge for Graves County, but I'm also a citizen and a voter and I think overall it’s a good amendment. It will make your district judge bench a more experienced bench,” Crooks said. 

Crooks added the extended term would help to insulate district court judges from political spats and frequent campaigning. 

“The less time you have to run, the less it politicizes the position. You’re not quite out there having to promise things or trying to avoid making promises that you’re not legally allowed to make. We run non-partisan and we’re supposed to be very even about how we handle all of our cases and not consider politics. I think there’s less political exposure if you are not running as often,” she explained.

If approved, the lengthened terms and experience requirement for district court judges will begin in the 2022 election cycle. 

The other component of Constitutional Amendment Two deals with terms of office for commonwealth’s attorneys. Commonwealth’s attorneys (often referred to as district attorneys in other states) are the chief felony prosecutors of the judicial circuit in which they are elected. The state constitution currently requires them to have four years of experience before running for a six-year term. The amendment would increase that term to eight years. 

29th Judicial Circuit Commonwealth’s Attorney Brian Wright serves as the vice president of the Kentucky Commonwealth’s Attorneys Association. He said the amendment hasn’t received a high level of attention but voters should fully understand the wording before casting their vote.

“That’s a constitutional amendment that has some good aspects about it and has some bad aspects about it that I think each person just probably ought to weigh,” Wright said. 

Wright said a positive aspect is the heightened experience requirement for district judges. He said the longer terms for judges is a negative part of the amendment.

“There’s a longer period between election cycles as far as accountability goes. It has good points and bad points,” he added.

Wright said the amendment could make judicial redistricting easier by aligning elections for commonwealth’s attorney with the circuit court judges in their judicial circuit. The current terms for the offices mean the judicial and prosecutorial offices irregularly appear on the same ballot. 

Wright expressed concern over the lack of statewide awareness for the constitutional amendment. He said the proposed Marsy’s Law measure is receiving more exposure despite the importance of both amendments.

“Any time you’re looking at amending the constitution of Kentucky, voters ought to be well-informed about what decision they’re making. It’s a significant decision to make an amendment to our constitution,” he said.

The term extension for commonwealth’s attorneys would take effect in the 2030 election cycle. 

Sections 109 to 139 of the Kentucky Constitution deal with the “judicial department” of state government. Read the full text of the document here.