FRANKFORT It took 124 years and it didn’t happen without impassioned opposition and still must clear the state House, but a plan to reallocate the state’s judges passed the state Senate Wednesday on a 23-13 vote.
The measure, sponsored by Sen. John Schickel, R-Union, follows a plan developed by the state’s court system and a working group of judges and prosecutors.
That group assessed the workloads of district and circuit judges according to caseload - rather than population, finding some judges were handling caseloads smaller than what a judge could effectively manage while others were handling caseloads equivalent to two or more judges.
The plan won’t go into effect until 2022, because that’s the first year all the judicial offices and prosecutors’ elections line up.
While the number of judges statewide won’t change, some districts and circuits will lose judges while busier districts or circuits will gain judges and two existing judge positions will be converted to family court judges and allocated to different districts or circuits.
Almost an equal number of Republicans (six) and Democrats (seven) voted against the bill, an indication their objections had more to do with their own districts than with politics.
Sen. Joe Bowen, R-Owensboro, spoke against the bill because the circuit in Daviess County will lose two judges and Bowen said the data indicates the need for an additional judge - although he didn’t expand on that claim.
Sen. Dan Seum, R-Louisville, a member of leadership, criticized the plan for removing a judge from Bullitt County that he said is the state’s fastest growing county.
But Supreme Court Chief Justice John Minton, who headed up the working group which produced the plan, has said some jurisdictions may have more population but fewer caseloads so the plan can’t be driven entirely by population.
Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, tried to amend the plan to preserve two judges in Boyd County and others in Martin County but her amendments failed.
She said she understands how difficult devising the plan is but asked why more time can’t be taken and complained the legislature had no say in the plan. She also criticized the work group for failing to record notes or minutes of its deliberations.
“We can remedy this,” Webb said. “We don’t have to accept this. We didn’t have much input into this. Where’s the urgency here?”
But Schickel said the urgency is to have the plan in place prior to the 2020 election cycle because the next time all the offices line up in one election cycle is 2030. (Without consistent election cycles, circuits or districts might have to share a prosecutor rather than electing judges and commonwealth attorneys by the same electorate.)
Schickel, who has pushed for judicial redistricting for several sessions, called Wednesday’s vote an “historic day in Kentucky.”
The districts and circuits have never been re-drawn and even after the 1976 Judicial Article that established the current court system, the old circuits and districts were re-adopted.
Schickel said the plan seeks to provide all Kentucky residents equal access to the courts and “puts the judges where the people are.”
The plan will now go to the House where it is likely to face the same criticisms from lawmakers from districts or circuits that are losing judgeships to others.
In other action Wednesday, the Senate passed Senate Bill 11 that effectively lifts a moratorium on constructing nuclear generators in Kentucky by a vote of 27-8.
Sponsored by Sen. Danny Carroll, R-Paducah, the measure was championed for years by his predecessor Sen. Bob Leeper, I-Paducah, and passed the Senate multiple times only to die in the House which was then controlled by Democrats.
But Republicans now control the House and the measure stands a much better chance of passage this year.
Carroll said no one expects a nuclear reactor to be constructed in Kentucky “any time soon” but the state must adopt a policy supporting and regulating the industry before that can happen.
The measure will now go to the House.