Both candidates seeking the 7th District Supreme Court seat in Eastern Kentucky are experienced judges, but their experience is very different.
Janet L. Stumbo, who is on the Kentucky Court of Appeals, has served 24 years on that court and the state Supreme Court.
Her opponent, Samuel T. Wright III, the circuit judge in Letcher County, has been on the bench more than 23 years, first as a district judge for a short time but mostly in his current position.
In Kentucky's court system, cases start at the district or circuit court level, then can be appealed to the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court.
The district covers 22 counties in Eastern Kentucky. The job became available when Justice Will T. Scott resigned to run for governor this year.
Stumbo said her career as an appellate judge makes her the better choice to rejoin the state's highest court.
There are different skills needed at the appellate level, such as working in collaboration with other judges and building consensus for opinions, and the considerations are different than at the trial-court level, Stumbo said.
"I think the experience of being purely an appellate judge is important," Stumbo said. "Clearly I have the broad experience that is needed for the Supreme Court."
Wright, however, argues that the experience of making decisions quickly during trials and hearings makes him the better choice.
The high court could benefit from that perspective in deciding appeals, Wright said.
"I think you need that insight," he said.
And Wright noted he has experience handling appeals. Circuit courts handle appeals from district court and some others as well, Wright said.
During the campaign, Stumbo has called for greater openness and quicker resolutions in the process for disciplining lawyers.
There are time limits in the state's process for disciplining judges, but there is no time limit to act on a complaint against a lawyer, Stumbo said.
Stumbo, who in 1993 became the first woman ever elected to the state Supreme Court, on which she first served for 10 years, wrote new rules to make the discipline system for judges more open and headed a pilot program to create family courts.
Stumbo said the state needs funding to provide more drug courts, including juvenile drug courts, and needs to expand the availability of family courts, which hear cases such as divorce and custody matters.
In counties without family court judges, circuit and district judges should get more resources to help them handle those cases, Stumbo said.
Wright said he started the first parent education clinic east of Interstate 75 to help divorcing parents improve communication so children don't get caught in the middle.
Wright said he also started a mediation process to get cases resolved more quickly.
In addition, he secured funding to start a drug court more than a decade ago. The court recently received $900,000 over three years to expand, Wright said.
The recidivism rate for people who have gone through drug court in Letcher County has been lower than the state level, Wright said.
"It is the most successful way I've ever seen to deal with the drug problem," Wright said of drug court.
He advocates making the program more widely available in Kentucky.
If elected to the Supreme Court, his insight would help in writing rules to further develop the system, Wright said.
Several labor organizations have endorsed Stumbo, while the association representing state-court prosecutors endorsed Wright.
As of Oct 19, the date of their last campaign-finance reports, Wright reported spending nearly double what Stumbo had spent during the entire election, though Stumbo reported outspending Wright in the first three weeks of October.
It is Wright's first political race outside of Letcher County, while Stumbo has run several races encompassing the region.
An independent, nonpartisan citizens' group that encourages judicial candidates to avoid false or misleading advertising has called foul on some advertising in the race.
The Kentucky Judicial Campaign Conduct Committee Inc., which is not affiliated with the state, concluded that a commercial by Wright misrepresented the role of a judge or justice and undermined the high standards that should govern judicial races.
The ad said Stumbo sided with criminals nearly 60 percent of the time in opinions during her last five years on the Supreme Court.
One problem was that the ad counted only published opinions. Including unpublished opinions might have meant a very different calculation, the committee said.
Beyond that, the committee told Wright that judges and justices are supposed to base decisions on the law, without taking sides. Many lower-court decisions are overturned for procedural, statutory or constitutional issues, which should not be seen as siding with criminals, said the committee, which includes judges and attorneys.
"To say otherwise is to purposely mislead the electorate on the role of a judge or justice," the committee said in a release.
Wright argued to the committee that his ads were accurate, and said its decision was wrong.
He said he adheres to the code of ethics that governs judges and has never been found in violation. That code is administered by a state panel called the Judicial Conduct Commission.
In an interview with the Herald-Leader, Wright said judges must balance the rights of accused people and victims.
"I can achieve a better balance" than Stumbo, he said.
But Stumbo said she considers each case on its merits as a judge should, with no favoritism for defendants.
"I just decide the cases as they come to me," Stumbo said.
The committee concluded Stumbo made an inaccurate claim about having more time as an appellate judge than anyone in state history. The committee cited one other judge with more years on the appellate bench.
Stumbo's husband, Prestonsburg lawyer Ned Pillersdorf, said he had received incorrect information in checking the accuracy of the claim.
The committee said Stumbo's campaign made a claim on its website that it could not substantiate.
The claim was that Wright was skirting rules by calling potential contributors and then handing the phone to another person to seek a campaign contribution.
Wright said that claim was false.