Herald-Leader Editorial

Return Stumbo to high court

October 27, 2012 

Voters in Eastern Kentucky must choose between two well-qualified judges for Supreme Court.

Janet Stumbo, the first woman to be elected to Kentucky's Court of Appeals and Supreme Court, is trying to reclaim the seat she lost in 2004 to Will T. Scott. (Supreme Court terms last eight years.)

Scott, who ran several political races as a Republican, has surprised legal observers with his moderate approach, especially in civil cases.

He sided with coal miners last year when he wrote the majority opinion in a 4-2-1 decision that struck down medical screening requirements that had denied workers compensation benefits to miners who develop black lung.

Scott was the lone dissenter in a ruling that upheld a 15-year prison sentence for a man convicted of child abuse in Pulaski County. He argued the father was guilty only of poverty and bad parenting and that the cost of imprisoning him was unjustified.

In terms of legal knowledge and work habits, the candidates are equal. Stumbo is a better listener; her demeanor and temperament seem more judicial.

Experience-wise, it is more like a race between co-incumbents. Scott has served eight years on the Supreme Court and four years as a Pike Circuit judge. Stumbo served 11 years on the Supreme Court and 10 years on the Court of Appeals.

So how to decide? By considering duties beyond hearing appeals and writing opinions. These include overseeing Kentucky's courts, setting the standards for judges and lawyers, and serving as role models for those standards. By that measure, Stumbo is far superior.

The best example of Scott letting down the judiciary are the attack ads he used against Stumbo eight years ago and again this year.

Candidates for judge were once constrained from signaling how they would rule on cases or taking political stands by rules aimed at preserving the appearance of impartiality. Courts have struck down those rules as violations of free speech, but many Kentucky judges have chosen to abide by the old standards anyway, for the good of the courts.

Not Scott. His attacks on Stumbo in 2004 sparked creation of an advisory committee to help protect the judiciary from being dragged down into the political mud. Scott's lack of concern for the dignity of judicial races does not inspire confidence. Neither does his casual dismissal of concerns about the appearance of nepotism created by the hiring of his son by the Administrative Office of the Courts, which the Supreme Court oversees. The son resigned after it was reported that he was promoted to a position supervising accused criminals despite a pending criminal charge against him.

Concerns about nepotism and cronyism within the AOC have subsided, beginning with the election of new justices in 2006 and the selection in 2008 of John Minton as chief justice. Today's Supreme Court sets a far better example than the one Scott joined in 2004.

Stumbo would quickly become an asset to the court. As a justice, she helped design the state's family court system and championed transparency in attorney discipline cases, good causes she would continue to champion if voters return her to the court's 7th District seat.

The unendorsed candidate may submit a 250-word response by noon Tuesday.

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