Herald-Leader Editorial

Better way to appoint judges

Lessen governor's control of process

November 1, 2012 

For the sake of the people of Clinton, Cumberland and Monroe counties, here's hoping the good David Williams shows up as circuit judge — and not the petty partisan bully whose ego frequently got the best of him as president of the state Senate.

Gov. Steve Beshear, who thrashed Williams in the race for governor last year, used his appointment powers to rid the legislature of his Republican nemesis.

This by no means assures that Democrat Beshear will get his way on expanded gambling or anything else, since Republicans seem assured of holding the Senate and even have a shot at taking the House.

But Williams' departure greatly enhances the probability for civility under the Capitol dome, as well as less political brinkmanship (as in maybe the legislature will get the budget out on time).

This is the third time Beshear has used his appointment powers to try to shape a Senate more to his liking by moving Republicans to full-time jobs in other branches of government. Of those three, two have involved circuit judgeships: former Sen. Dan Kelly and now Williams.

As far as we know, Kelly has been a good judge. Williams may turn out to be a decent judge; he's suffered enough public humiliations in the last year to make him a humbler version of his tyrannical self.

Rather than delve into the merits of the Williams' appointment, which is a done deal, this is be an opportunity to consider the judicial appointment process.

Almost all judges in Kentucky begin as gubernatorial appointees who later stand for election as incumbents. Judges carry heavy responsibilities, including the duty to remain impartial and politically independent.

When there's a judicial vacancy, the appointment should ride on more than what's politically advantageous for the governor. But the current system makes it pretty much all about what's politically advantageous for the governor, which is not good for the judiciary.

There is a better way.

In a Herald-Leader commentary in 2007, former Supreme Court Justice James E. Keller proposed a plan for improving the integrity of the process for naming judges, which deserves consideration.

Now, when a judgeship becomes vacant, a judicial nominating committee made up of seven members considers the applicants and nominates three finalists from whom the governor appoints the judge.

Four of the seven nominating committee members are chosen by the governor, two from each party.

Keller says the governor's control of the nominating committee is the "primary problem with the system" because "in reality, this usually gives the governor complete control of the process from beginning to end."

Keller recommends that instead of the governor appointing the four non-lawyers to the nominating committee, they should be chosen by the majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate.

This would require a constitutional amendment, but with a little explaining, voters would recognize the value of the change — for the sake of the integrity of the judiciary.

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