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Lane One-On-One: A Judicial Review

As he prepares to step down as chief justice of the Kentucky Supreme Court, Laurance VanMeter reflects on a legal career spanning more than 40 years

By Mark Green

Mark Green: After growing up on a tobacco farm in Clark County, you’ve been a district, circuit and appeals court judge and now are at the top of Kentucky’s judiciary and legal system. Why did you go into law and then the judiciary?
Laurance VanMeter: My journey to the law was: I was sitting on a tractor the summer before my senior year in college. I was a history major, thinking, ‘What am I going to do? I do not want to do this.’ My dad was a farmer, my granddad was a farmer. Farming is honorable work, but it was not what I wanted to do. My mother suggested law school. Ultimately, I decided to pursue that path and graduated from UK Law with honors.

My only law firm job was at Stoll Keenon and then-Park, now Ogden, one of the preeminent law firms in Kentucky. My mentor, “Buddy” (William T.) Bishop III, had an equine law practice, including Keeneland and a large number of horse farms all around Central Kentucky. He had about five (clients) he really liked to work for and I got the overflow. It was a very broad transactional law practice: big business organizations, planning, real estate, taxation, estate planning, probate. In a transactional law practice, your goal is to draft agreements—organizational documents for business organizations, corporations, limited-liability companies, contracts, stallion syndications—that other lawyers and judges will read and interpret the same way you have and your clients’ goals will be accomplished. I read enough cases over the 11 years I was with Stoll Keenon that I wasn’t completely sure our appellate judges were doing this. A lot of judges had a lot of litigation experience, a lot of criminal law experience, but maybe not so much transactional law experience. I thought I could do better than that.

There was a vacancy for Fayette District Court and I put my name in and was fortunate enough to be appointed. I won my first election and that got me going; I was a district judge for five years.

Then a vacancy came up for Circuit Court. I applied for that; I got appointed. Then four years after that there was a vacancy on the Court of Appeals, and that’s where I wanted to be. I then served on the Court of Appeals for 13 years. When Justice Mary Noble retired in 2016, I ran for that position so here I am. At the end of this term, I will have been on the Kentucky Supreme Court for eight years.

My goal was to be in the appellate courts. I want to have a positive impact on what the law of the Commonwealth of Kentucky is from a transactional law point of view. I will have done that for 21 years.

MG: You have announced that you will not seek another term on the Supreme Court, meaning you will complete your term at the end of 2024 and you will be chief justice for a much shorter time than your predecessors. Why?
LVM: Bob Stevens was chief justice for 16 years; he became the chief justice when he was 54. Joe Lambert was chief justice for 10 years; he became chief justice when he was 50. John Minton became chief justice when he was 56. I became chief justice at 64, having already served almost 30 years in the Kentucky judiciary. There’s a time-of-life difference there.

If we had had this interview in July (2023) I would have said, ‘Yeah, I’m running. I have my campaign team ready to go.’ In August, the wife of a good friend died at 65 years old. She died very suddenly of liver and kidney failure. I thought about not running but do you stop being chief justice after two years? But the more I thought about it, it ultimately became an issue of work-life balance. How many good years do I have left? Not how many years—how many good years. Are there other things I want to do?

When I talked to reporters from NPR, The Associated Press, the Louisville Courier-Journal, they wanted to talk about how nasty judicial races have gotten. I like running for election; you get to go out. In our line of work, we’re in an ‘ivory tower’ and don’t get a lot of interaction. But ultimately, it’s: ‘Am I willing to commit to serve a full eight-year term starting at age 66 when I’ve been a judge for 30 years?’ And the answer is: No. There are people who want to run, who want to serve on the Kentucky Supreme Court. And good luck to them all.

MG: The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated existing trends across society, especially in use of technology to interact socially and conduct business. What were the pandemic impacts on the courts in Kentucky?
LVM: We shut down the court systems and thankfully there were video products available that enabled courts to be conducted remotely; not so much jury trials. We shut down jury trials for almost a year and a half. Family courts don’t have jury trials, so in some ways family courts weren’t as impacted. But we had to conduct the courts because things still happen: crimes, civil disputes, family disputes. We were able to develop remote hearings statewide.

MG: Did the Supreme Court have to be directly involved? Sign off on it?
LVM: Absolutely. The Supreme Court has two functions. The one most people think about is the adjudication part, the decisions we render every month. The other part is administrative. The Supreme Court by constitution runs the court system of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and all the justices on the Kentucky Supreme Court do administrative work. The chief justice does a whole lot of administrative work.

In the five years before 2020, we averaged 20 administrative orders a year. During 2020, the COVID year, that shot up to 84 administrative orders. Almost all of the increase was COVID-related: whether the courts were going to be open, under what parameters were judges permitted to conduct remote hearings or in-person hearings, what was the required distancing, what were the parameters of not only witnesses but people who wanted to observe?
Now, we’re trying to give local judges the flexibility to make good decisions about when a remote appearance is called for but also when an in-person appearance is more appropriate.

MG: Are there any special issues you are hearing from the business community?
LVM: We’re moving to an electronic filing system and we are going to be adopting a trial court case management system that is going to be vendor oriented as opposed to in-house. It’s very difficult to get in-house tech people to work for government; basically, they are contractors. We procured a $38 million grant from COVID funds given by the federal government to develop a new case management system. It’s not going to be done this year, maybe not even next year, but that’s what we’re working towards.

MG: Jefferson County a few years ago launched a pilot business court program. Where does that stand and are others around the state looking at adopting this model?
LVM: We have 60 circuits in Kentucky, and a lot of these circuits are one judge. So, does it make sense to have a ‘business court’ when you’re just going to have the same judge anyway? It was not met with overwhelming enthusiasm. We talked about would it make sense to pull in business cases from the six counties that surround Fayette, which are Bourbon, Clark, Madison, Jessamine, Woodford, Scott. In Northern Kentucky, would it make sense to create business court for Boone, Kenton and Campbell, maybe add in Pendleton? It’s an ongoing process. Aside from Jefferson, there is not volume and practicality.

MG: Are the courts seeing any increases in litigation?
LVM: No. If you look at the case numbers systemwide for the last 20 years, this is true not only for civil cases and family cases, it’s true for criminal cases, circuit courts, family courts, district courts. The numbers are a slow, slow tick down. Why that would be I’m not sure, but my guess is that litigation is expensive and you’re making the results of the outcome uncertain. It’s easier (to avoid litigation) with either arbitration or mediation. A lot of retired judges do mediation law. Lawyers do mediation, and we have some really good ones.

MG: Many sectors of the economy just cannot find enough people to fill their positions. Do the courts have any trouble filling the positions?
LVM: Yes. The chief justice is like the CEO of a corporation because we have millions of square feet of office space, 3,500 employees and 300 judges. But we depend largely on the legislature for our funding. There was a time due to the recession and the contraction of state budgets and funds that judicial branch personnel didn’t get a pay increase. Not only judges but staff employees, circuit court clerks and deputy circuit clerks. The emphasis over the last five to six years has been trying to increase those salaries. Our employees were being poached by the executive branch, which has better salaries, and by private employers. The emphasis has been to increase judicial salaries because you want to entice good lawyers who are in the prime of life. But they have a mortgage, kids in college and all the expense that goes with that, and you take them out of their prime earning years. And we’re going to make them run for election. The idea behind judicial salaries is you want to entice the better lawyers to become judges. Lawyers who might have a harder time earning a lucrative income are always going to be enticed by whatever salary might be offered.

MG: What is the budget that you’re overseeing for the courts? What have been some recent requests to the General Assembly?

LVM: It’s basically 3% of overall state government, and a lot of that is salaries. All the courthouses are owned by the counties, but the judicial branch is responsible for the upkeep. One of the problems we have is that we have a maintenance pool that’s very deficient, so we’ve made a request in our budget to increase that this year. We have dozens of courthouses built in the past 25 years. The life expectancy of an HVAC system is probably not 25 years. What’s the life expectancy of a roof? Of an electrical system? All that has to be taken care of.

What we’re trying to do now is only make two requests for new buildings. One is for the courthouse in Owsley County, which is our smallest, poorest county. The Owsley roof is failing, their HVAC system is failing. They have one courtroom. They have very poor security for the judges and the jurors. They need a building, but we have a protocol given the size of the county and the caseload as to how big a building is going to be.

The other building request is a new Court of Appeals building in Frankfort on land already owned by the Court of Justice. The prior building was infected by black mold, so they’re in a temporary building in Frankfort.

We make recommendations but what ultimately gets into the judicial budget is a legislative political process.

MG: Do you think there needs to be a change in the existing structure of the Kentucky Bar Association, which has been proposed in the General Assembly?
LVM: If you go to the Kentucky secretary of state’s website—where we form corporations, professional service corporations, LLCs, any number of business organizations—you will not find one called the Kentucky Bar Association because it is a judicial branch agency wholly under the purview of the Kentucky Supreme Court.

Section 116 in the Kentucky Constitution states the Supreme Court shall govern admission to the bar and the discipline of members to the bar. The discussion I have had with members of the legislature is, no other profession is required to be a member of an association to practice their profession. Why is the bar different? Because of Section 116 of the Kentucky Constitution. The regulation and supervision of the practice of law in our court system and the admission and discipline of members of the bar has long been a function of the judicial branch of government.
Will they pass that bill this year? Maybe. Then the question will be for the Kentucky Supreme Court, do you go forward with this? Every federal court that has looked at this has said a uniform bar is not unconstitutional; it does not violate the rights of lawyers’ associations. That’s every state within the 6th Circuit: Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. The 6th Circuit has said that this is OK. Unless they can get it to the U.S. Supreme Court, the way we do it right now will be upheld.

There is the idea that if we can make our elections more partisan that would be another piece of information for people. My take is that what people want is experience. They are used to nonpartisan judicial elections and appear to have rejected appeals to partisanship. If the legislature decides to adopt a constitutional amendment to make our judicial elections overtly partisan, we would change the rules. Right now, we don’t raise money for ourselves, don’t ask people for money, don’t give monies to other candidates and don’t endorse other candidates. Those rules would have to change. Unless you’re going to change the scope of Judicial Review, the seven judges on the Kentucky Supreme Court will have final say on everything that the governor and the legislature does because we do right now. Do we want to create a system where we have this class of seven super-overtly partisan officials ruling?

MG: What do you wish the public and or the business community better understood about how the court system and the judiciary operates?
LVM: Courts are reactive, not proactive. If I head down Main Street and see a pothole, I can’t fix the pothole. I might call my council representative, but it’s not up to me to fix that. My wife—who’s a judge—brought home a poll about the most powerful people in Lexington. No. 1, Gov. Beshear; No. 2, the mayor; No. 3, (UK President) Eli Capilouto; No. 4, (UK basketball coach) John Calipari. One person not on the list was the chief justice of the commonwealth, and that tells me I’m doing my job.

We’re not supposed to make decisions based on our personal views of the issues. We’re supposed to look at what the law is, what the facts are related to that and make a decision based on the constitutional law. My oath of office is to support the constitution of United States and the constitution of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, not to the principles of a political party. We’re all against crime, but every once in a while we’re required to make decisions which have the effect of reversing a criminal conviction for a new trial, even though we know with 94% certainty that he or she did it. We issue opinions.

I was the trial judge when the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government issued the ban on indoor smoking because of second-hand smoke. I was running for Court of Appeals at that moment and issued a ruling that that was permitted by the local government because it related to health—and local governments have the ability to pass ordinances related to health. I got such a hard time from tobacco farmers who did not like the opinion. One of my law clerks said, ‘Do we need to issue this opinion before the election?’ I said, ‘If I can’t issue this opinion, not only do I not need to be a judge on the Court of Appeals, I don’t need to be a judge at all.’

MG: Is there a case over your career that sticks out that was the hardest to render a decision on?
LVM: That smoking ban case was one. I come from a line of tobacco farmers; I don’t smoke but I disclosed that. That was a hard case. On the Supreme Court, the right-to-work case that said a worker didn’t have to be a member of a union or pay union dues to work in a union shop: I had friends on both sides of that case. And I wrote the opinion in the historic horse racing (machines) case; that was hard. My legal career was formed with a background in the equine industry and I have a lot of friends in the equine industry. But legally it was the right decision. I wrote a concurring opinion in the pension case in 2018 that I got some very strong pushback from someone who had supported me, but again, it was the right decision. You have to make decisions without fear of criticism or public clamor.

MG: Why did the Supreme Court vote to replace the Uniform Bar Exam test in 2027 with the NextGen bar exam?
LVM: In 2020, we decided to go to with the Uniform Bar Exam, which was for the benefit of our applicants. If they pass the Kentucky Bar exam with score a 266, they can also be admitted in Indiana (and other states where that is a passing score). In Northern Kentucky, lawyers might want to be licensed in Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana, so they can take one bar exam instead of three. It’s a benefit to the students and for the business community. You need to be able to practice in multiple states and understand what’s going on. So, the National Conference of Bar Examiners is changing the format and making it more integrated. They’re trying to focus on the tasks a new lawyer in the first three years of practice will need to know to demonstrate competence to be a lawyer. Beginning in July 2027, we have adopted that.

MG: Does Kentucky need another law school?
LVM: No. I think we have three very good law schools. I don’t think we need another.

MG: What legacy does Laurance VanMeter hope to leave behind?
LVM: I hope it’s that I did my job. I followed ‘my rulebook’ (the Constitution); I’ve made decisions without fear of public clamor or criticism. When I ran (for Supreme Court) in 2016, there was a block on a Lexington street where there were houses four doors apart with one having signs for Donald Trump, Rand Paul, Andy Barr and me and the other had me and Hillary Clinton, Jim Gray and the Democratic candidate for Congress. People would say, ‘I hear you’re a certain political party but we thought you were the other party.’ That tells me I have done the job that the people hired me to do.