At least among Republicans, Lt. Gov. Steve Pence put the best light on Thursday’s indictment of Gov. Ernie Fletcher on three misdemeanors of illegally rewarding political supporters with state jobs.

“It is time for this matter to be tried in the courtroom and not in the media,” said Pence, a former federal prosecutor. “I am confident all sides of this political investigation will be heard and justice done.”

Pence is right. It is time that the merits of the year-long, highly-publicized investigation conducted by the office of Attorney General Greg Stumbo be aired publicly in a court of law. About the only way that was going to happen was for the special grand jury, meeting in Frankfort since last June, to indict the governor himself.

After all, Fletcher eliminated the possibility of others accused in the investigation of the administration’s hiring practices either being convicted or acquitted in court by issuing a blanket pardon of everyone connected with the investigation, with the notable exception of himself.

While the courts likely will style this case as the Commonwealth of Kentucky v. Ernie Fletcher, a more accurate name would be Greg Stumbo v. Ernie Fletcher. After all, the Democratic attorney general and Republican governor are the two biggest names in this case, and how it plays out in court will play a pivotal role in both of their political futures.

If the courts — either through a judge’s ruling or a trial by jury — determine that the charges are baseless and Fletcher is either found not guilty or the charges are dismissed without a trial, then Fletcher’s accusations that this entire investigation is nothing more than a political witch-hunt orchestrated by a politically ambitious attorney general will ring true. That, in turn, likely will increase public sympathy for the governor and enhance his political ambitions. It also would doom whatever future Stumbo has in state politics.

On the other hand, if the governor is found guilty and court proceedings reveal that the charges not only are well-founded but a bit more serious than politics as usual in Frankfort, then Fletcher’s political career will have come to an end.

To be sure, the charges against the governor are rather minor, misdemeanors instead of felonies. If convicted, the governor probably would receive no more than a fine. But the ultimate trial in this case will be in the court of public opinion, and the jury will be the people of Kentucky.

While the indictment of the state’s highest elected official is never a reason to rejoice, it may be the best way to bring a satisfying end to an investigation that has dominated and defined the Fletcher administration. We trust the courts will reach a fair and just conclusion to this sad chapter in Kentucky history.

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