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 a voter guide for state legislative races and a report on the proposed constitutional amendment for judicial reform.
Two candidates are vying to fill the unexpired term created by the retirement of 42nd Judicial Circuit Family Court Judge Rob Mattingly in 2019. Both candidates replied to a pre-election survey distributed by WKMS News.
Judge Stephanie Perlow
Governor Andy Beshear appointed Perlow in March to fill the vacant judgeship. Prior to taking office, she said she handled more than 2,000 family law cases in her private practice. Perlow is a graduate of Murray State University and the Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley School of Law. She was admitted to the Kentucky Bar Association in 2008.
Yates is a private practice attorney in Marshall County. He said he is a ‘general practitioner,’ handling cases in criminal defense, family law, personal injury, bankruptcy and other areas. Yates is a graduate of the University of Memphis and the Southern Illinois University School of Law. He was admitted to the Kentucky Bar Association in 2006.
Politicization of Judicial Races
Judges and judicial candidates in Kentucky are bound by strict ethics guidelines forcing them to refrain from political activities, and judgeships are required to appear as non-partisan races on voting ballots. Both candidates agreed to the importance of non-partisan races in the judiciary, with Yates underscoring his conservative views and Perlow opting for a community-based approach.
“I have grown up and been active in these communities for well over two decades, since I was a teenager, and my husband has spent his entire life here, and I am reminded daily how much this community values families and children. I have a large campaign committee comprised of many prominent Republicans, Democrats, and Independents that know me and share my belief that we are better as a community when we strengthen families and empower children to be their best selves,” Perlow told WKMS.
“It is well settled that judicial races are non-partisan, and that is appropriate. That does not mean that a candidate cannot express their personal beliefs such as being pro-life, pro-police, pro-military, pro-religious freedom or even be described broadly as conservative. There is an old saying, ‘You are known by the company you keep.’ When a candidate expresses their personal ideals, or financially contributes to a particular party, the public cannot help but see whether the candidate would personally be blue or red. But it is up to the voter whether they choose to politicize a judicial race,” Yates responded.
While family courts are not statutorily charged with resolving criminal cases related to drugs, cases concerning addiction naturally make their way to the court due to their caseload. Family courts deal with divorce, custody, adoption, dependency, neglect, abuse and most other matters related to families. When addiction impacts the aforementioned types of cases, family courts are left to respond. Perlow and Yates agreed on the importance of treatment for those dealing with addiction, and expounded on their vision for the role of family court in the commonwealth’s drug crisis.
“Every case before the Family Court is unique. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. For people or children who suffer from the disease of addiction, likewise, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Each case requires the parties and myself to develop the best strategy to treat the disease of addiction, which could include any number of options. I see drug addiction every day and they are our spouses, children, parents, siblings, friends, and loved ones. I see success and failure, but the most important thing I can do is to show them I care and that there are others that care,” Perlow said.
“One of the most difficult aspects of Family Court is dealing with cases involving children that are dependent, neglected, or abused. Many times this is a result of the use of drugs by one or both parents. In the criminal court, steps have been taken to work toward encouraging rehabilitation in ways that incentivize completion of strict programs. This also needs to happen at the family court level. Instead of dealing with problems primarily by shuffling children, we need to address the root of the problem and create a culture that encourages parents to address their drug issues but not at the expense of the safety of a child,” Yates explained.
Vision for Family Court
Family Court is a relatively new development in Kentucky’s judiciary. The goal is to allow families to resolve all matters within one court under the “One Family, One Judge, One Court” model. Family court originated in Jefferson County in 1991 as a pilot program before expanding across the commonwealth. Kentucky voters permanently enshrined family court in the state Constitution by passing a judicial reform amendment in 2002 with more than 75% of voters casting their ballots in favor. The Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts reports 71 counties in the state currently have a family court division. When asked what family court is doing right and what needs to be changed, Perlow and Yates offered ideas for new programs the court should offer.
“I would like to bring awareness to the public about all types of ways to adopt a child, whether it be through foster care, domestic adoption, and/or international adoption. I have been lucky to be involved in over 300 adoptions, however, that is only a fraction of those who showed interest. I have sat with hundreds of people, held their hands, heard their stories, and saw the tears of joy and sorrow because they simply want to raise a child. At the same time, I have had the same experiences with children who simply want a family. A priority of Family Court should be providing an event and resource base for anybody that is interested so that they may have access to all the options available to them. We have fantastic community partners that can be brought together to help families and children unite. We are too strong a community to let any person wishing to adopt or any child seeking a home to be left in the dark because the process is too overwhelming.” Perlow said.
“Kentucky's Family Court system has been a very positive step for our communities. As a court of limited jurisdiction, it can have a much more focused approach. It also allows cases to move forward with judicial efficiency instead of battling with criminal and civil cases for hearing dates. But, as a relatively young institution, individual Family Courts in Kentucky can benefit from looking at ideas that have worked in the other courts, including other Family Courts. This can include job training and placement assistance to fight poverty for parents and more early intervention. There also needs to be more community involvement to develop mentoring programs, not just for the children impacted by problem parents, but for those parents to have a support network and positive examples of how to raise children and be productive in society,” Yates said.
Some responses were edited for length and clarity.