Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr. released a plan Tuesday to redraw the boundary lines of the state’s circuit and district courts with an emphasis on adding family court judges.
It marks the first time in decades that Kentucky officials will consider such a statewide judicial redistricting plan. Kentucky lawmakers will take it up during the 2017 regular session of the General Assembly, which begins Jan. 3.
If passed, the plan will take effect in 2022, when all circuit court, family court and district court judges are on the ballot.
Under the plan, Kentucky would get 16 more family court judges and lose 11 district and four circuit judges. That would give the state 105 district judges, 91 circuit judges and 68 family court judges.
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The new family court judges primarily would be in rural areas except for Boone and Kenton counties. Western Kentucky would lose seven district judges and Eastern Kentucky would lose three circuit judges.
Minton said the state is seeing “a dramatic increase” in the need for family courts. For example, he said, the plan adds a family court judge in Lincoln, Pulaski and Rockcastle counties since the family court judge in that circuit currently is doing the work of 2.18 family judges.
Members of the Kentucky Supreme Court voted for the new judicial redistricting plan with a “no” vote from Justice Bill Cunningham of Lyon County who did not like the changes in his area of the state, said Minton.
“I am pleased to announce that the judicial branch has fulfilled its directive from the legislature to produce a plan that will update Kentucky’s circuit and districts to reflect current judicial workloads,” Minton said in a release.
“Changing boundary lines and reallocating resources is never easy, which is why judicial redistricting hasn’t been addressed for so long. The fact that we’re making this announcement today is a major achievement and I appreciate the judges’ support of what is a tremendous milestone for the Kentucky Court of Justice.”
Minton said the court’s plan was based on “sound research principles and input from stakeholders statewide.”
He acknowledged that not everyone will agree with the proposed changes.
“However, the Supreme Court believes this plan will move us beyond the years of inaction and provide a solid start to correcting the pockets of workload imbalances we identified across the state,” he said. “When timely justice is compromised by unmanageably high caseloads, we must consider that a call to action. Giving all citizens the same access to justice is our standard and this plan will help us fulfill that responsibility.”
House Speaker-elect Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, said he will keep an open mind about the plan.
“I just saw the proposal for the very first time last week, although I understand outgoing members of the House have been working with the Chief Justice for months,” Hoover said. “I will keep an open mind as we move forward in the process.”
Minton said the two primary point persons from the legislature who worked on the plan were Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, and Rep. Lew Nicholls, D-Greenup. Nicholls lost a bid for re-election in November as Republicans took control of the House for the first time in 95 years and will have a 64-36 majority in the 2017 session.
Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, had no comment on the plan.
The proposed plan will:
▪ Move a limited number of counties from one jurisdiction to another.
▪ Combine circuits and districts that are currently different and reduce the number of circuits by one, from 57 to 56.
▪ Bring Family Court to all but 10 jurisdictions.
▪ Reallocate existing resources by moving judges from circuits with lower workloads to areas of greater need.
The judicial circuits and districts have remained largely unchanged since the passage of the Judicial Article, which created Kentucky’s modern court system in 1976. Since that time, Kentucky has seen significant changes in caseload and population.
Work on the plan began nearly three years ago. The process began in 2014 when the General Assembly included language in the judicial branch budget bill requiring the Administrative Office of the Courts to complete a judicial workload assessment study as the basis for a redistricting plan.
Unlike redistricting for legislative boundaries, judicial redistricting cannot be accomplished by making changes based solely on population, Minton said.
The judicial process is more difficult, he said, because it impacts commonwealth’s attorneys as well as judges and it is the type of caseload — not population — that ultimately determines the workloads of circuit, family and district judges.
Minton said he has not recommended to legislators how often the state should consider judicial redistricting but said it needs to happen “on a periodic basis.”
- Family court judges deal with issues such as divorce, spousal support, child custody, adoption, domestic violence, parental rights and truancy.
- District judges handle city and county ordinances, misdemeanors, violations, traffic offenses, probate of wills, arraignments, felony probable cause hearings, small claims involving $2,500 or less, and civil cases involving $5,000 or less.
- Circuit judges hear civil matters involving more than $5,000, capital offenses and felonies, land dispute title cases and contested probate cases.