Senate plan tackles shortage of judges

Sen. Rick Girdler, R-Somerset
Sen. Rick Girdler, R-Somerset

FRANKFORT (March 22, 2018) – With no revenue to create new judgeships, the state Senate approved a measure today to “redeploy” judges to regions seeing population growth.

House Bill 348, as amended by the Senate, would add family court judges to both the judicial circuit serving Lincoln, Pulaski and Rockcastle counties and judicial circuit serving Boone and Gallatin counties. Those new judgeships would be filled during the general election in November so the new family courts could be operational by Jan. 7 of next year.

“The current family judge for Lincoln, Pulaski and Rockcastle counties is currently doing the work of almost three judges,” said Sen. Rick Girdler, R-Somerset. “That in and of itself is almost criminal.”

The new judgeships would be paid for by the elimination of a circuit judge in Floyd County and a district judge in far West Kentucky by 2023. The change in far West Kentucky would be handled by combining two district judgeships – one in Fulton and Hickman counties and one in Carlisle and Ballard counties – into one district judgeship. The circuit judgeship for those counties is already combined.

HB 348 would also convert a district court judge to a family court judge in Bullitt County.

Girdler said HB 348 is not the statewide judicial plan the Kentucky Court of Justice spent more than two years researching and developing and that the Senate passed last session.

“We are simply reallocating existing resources to address an emergency situation,” he said, adding the judges are being removed from areas seeing a decline in population.

Another provision of HB 348 would require the Kentucky Court of Justice to resubmit a new judicial redistricting plan to the General Assembly before Dec. 31, 2020, for consideration in the non-budget session in 2021.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, said HB 348 was just a first step in ensuring residents of the growing regions of the state have access to justice.

“This bill is a compromise on that judicial redistricting plan,” he said. “I know after a long time in this chamber that you don’t give up the good for the sake of the perfect and sometimes you take half of a loaf instead of the whole loaf.”

Sen. Brandon Smith, R-Hazard, said taking away judges from areas projected to lose population becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“This bill has a negative impact on us in the mountains,” he said. “We continue to see this attempt to shift some of the judges out of the mountain region.”

He said rural areas hit by the loss of coal jobs need more, not less, support from the state.

Senate President Robert Stivers II, R-Manchester, stood in support of the bill.

“Should we have gone further? Without a doubt,” he said, “but at least we got a start on having policy and process to determine how we create or decertify judgeships in the future.”

HB 348 now goes back the House for consideration of the Senate change.

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