The timing of a family court judge’s announcement of his resignation — and the subsequent filing by his wife to succeed him — has raised questions in Clark and Madison counties about whether the retirement was orchestrated to prevent competition from other potential candidates.
Jeffrey Walson, who retired effective Aug. 7, denies the allegation. He said another person, Joan Deaton Grefer, filed on the Aug. 9 deadline and will appear on the November ballot along with Walson’s wife, Kimberly Blair Walson.
“It is obvious people had time to file,” Jeffrey Walson said in an interview.
But write-in candidate Elizabeth Elkins Bond doesn’t see it that way. She said she hurried to Frankfort to file but arrived three minutes after the deadline.
The timing of the judge’s announcement “was done with the very intention of trying to ensure that Kim was the only person on the ballot, to ensure that she took his seat when he left,” Bond said.
Kim Blair Walson filed as a candidate on Aug. 8, one day before the filing deadline and three days after her husband informed Gov. Matt Bevin, Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr. and Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes that he intended to retire effective Aug. 7.
Jeffrey Walson, 54, was re-elected as family court judge in 2014 and had six years remaining in his eight-year term.
In his letter to Bevin, Jeffrey Walson asked “that I be given the opportunity to announce my retirement on my own terms via an article in my hometown newspaper on Tuesday, August 9, with no advanced publicity.”
Walson sent an email about his retirement to the Madison and Clark bar associations on the afternoon of Aug. 9, the day of the filing deadline.
Later that afternoon, Kimberly Blair Walson sent emails to the bar associations seeking the support of their members to become her husband’s successor on the bench.
“As you now are aware, my husband, Jeff, has retired after three decades of service to our circuit,” Kim Blair Walson wrote. “This is to make you aware I am seeking to be his replacement and to ask you for your support.”
Grefer wrote in an email that she had planned to run when there was a vacancy. She’d heard a rumor that Jeffrey Walson was retiring, but she didn’t know until about 2:30 p.m. on the filing day that Walson had announced his retirement and that his wife had filed to run.
“That was when I realized the deadline was in an hour and a half, and I had to get from Richmond to Frankfort,” she wrote in an email.
“When I was on the way to Frankfort to file, both Judge Walson and Kim Blair Walson tried to call me,” Grefer wrote. “Kim also sent a text message, asking me to call her before I filed. I didn’t take their calls or respond to the message because I didn’t want them to talk me out of running.”
The Walsons said they had not anticipated that Grefer would be among the people interested in running for the position.
Kim Walson said she did call Grefer to confirm that Grefer intended to run. And Kim Walson said, “I wanted to let her know that I liked her as a person and I wanted us to have a nice, appropriate race and be decent to one another throughout the race.”
Meanwhile, Bond said she drove from Winchester to Frankfort.
“I got there at 4:03 and did not have the opportunity to file,” Bond said. “I was on the phone with the secretary of state’s office, and they advised me that the filing deadline was firmly at 4 o’clock and they could not accept my petition for application.”
Bond said the timing of Walson’s retirement announcement “prevented candidates who were qualified and interested in the position from being on the ballot and from giving the voters the choices.”
“I feel this was done in a way that was not open to the daylight so that everyone and anyone could have a chance to get on the ballot if they were qualified and chose to do so,” Bond said. “In my opinion, the way it was done was to ensure that the voters had only one choice and that was his wife.”
Jeffrey Walson said he chose to retire in part because of his mother’s ill health. Had he announced his retirement in the spring, “there would have been a gubernatorial appointment that may have been great, that may have been lousy,” he said.
“I realized that if I go ahead and make a vacancy, it could go on the ballot, and we could avoid all that upheaval in our circuit with maybe two judges in two years,” Jeffrey Walson said in an interview. “I was trying to make the right decision for the people in my family and the people in my circuit.”
Jeffrey Walson said his wife “is eminently qualified” to be judge.
“And, sure, I prefer that she gets elected, and I would prefer that she save the expense and stress of a campaign, which is hard,” he said. “It obviously wasn’t any kind of rigged deal. Mrs. Grefer had the competency to get up there and file her papers. She is a bona fide candidate and there will be a campaign. So be it.
“Bond has conceded that she couldn’t get there on time and now she’s mad. I don’t feel bad about that.”
Kim Walson, 42, said any criticism of the timing of her husband’s retirement “deflects from the real issue, and that is the fact I’ve done this (family court law) for 17 years, and I’ve done it exclusively. … I want an opportunity to keep up the good work that’s been done in our judiciary thus far. This is something I’ve dedicated my entire adult life to.”
Jeffrey Walson, a former assistant commonwealth’s attorney, was a district judge from 1993 through 2002 and had been a family court judge since 2003.
Grefer, 47, former president of the Madison County Bar Association, touts 21 years of family court experience in Clark and Madison counties.
Bond, 41, the write-in candidate, ran for district judge in 2007 and for family court judge in 2010 but was defeated each time.
Family court judges handle a variety of domestic issues including divorce, child custody, child support, paternity testing, adoption and domestic violence. The “one family, one judge” approach allows the same judge to hear all matters involving a particular family.
A family court judge is equivalent to a circuit judge and is paid $124,600 a year.