Herald-Leader Editorial

Taking stand for judicial integrity; court right to oust judge

July 24, 2012 

Harlan Circuit Judge Russell Alred at his ethics hearing on Aug. 30, 2011.

BILL ESTEP | STAFF

Thanks to Justices Daniel J. Venters of Somerset and Lisabeth Hughes Abramson of Louisville for their plain language in explaining why Harlan Circuit Judge Russell Alred deserved to be booted from the bench.

The state Supreme Court on Monday upheld the Judicial Conduct Commission's decision to remove Alred because of a pattern of misconduct.

Two justices — Bill Cunningham of Princeton and Will T. Scott of Pikeville — agreed that Alred "blundered to a serious degree" but said removing him from office was too harsh a punishment.

The dissenters made a compelling argument — that unless Alred has been convicted of a crime the Supreme Court should not overturn the decision of Harlan County voters who made him circuit judge.

It's a tough call, but in this case the five justices who supported removing Alred did the right thing by safeguarding the integrity of the judiciary and protecting the public, especially since Alred gave no sign of remorse.

The courts are supposed to be the apolitical branch of government. Admittedly there's no bright line between what's political and not, certainly, in Kentucky where voters elect judges, and also at the federal level where presidents appoint and the Senate confirms them for life.

Standards for judicial conduct are under attack. A federal court two years ago struck down Kentucky's prohibitions on judge candidates publicizing their party affiliations and personally fund-raising for their campaigns.

Even in light of the judiciary's new freedom, Alred's meddling and misconduct went beyond the pale. And, as the majority noted, he's shown no remorse or inclination to change.

In a separate opinion, Venters wrote that the conduct "most deserving of condemnation" was when two accused drug traffickers appeared before Alred and "were permitted by the judge to pay a total of a half million dollars ($500,000.00) in exchange for the judge's order dismissing the charges."

"One of three things occurred:

■ "Two innocent defendants paid a king's ransom in order to buy an acquittal.

■ "Two guilty defendants were allowed to buy their way out of the justice system for a very large 'slush fund' controlled by the judge.

■ "Or, one defendant was innocent and the other guilty, resulting in a combination of the aforementioned evils."

Alred then tried to muscle the Harlan Fiscal Court into using the $500,000 to build a water park.

As part of a larger pattern of misconduct, Alred also abused the grand jury process by ordering a special grand jury investigation on election eve to discredit Harlan County's judge-executive.

Despite all that, Venters wrote, if Alred had given any convincing assurances that he was sorry for what he had done and would try to do better, he would have supported leaving him on the bench.

Alred, who has not presided over cases but has been paid since the Judicial Conduct Commission's ruling, should look for a new line of work.

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