Gov. Matt Bevin spends a lot of time treading the fine line between foolish and dangerous. A recent example is his renewed and baseless attacks on Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd over a ruling that Bevin disliked.
Many recognized the tirade as just another Trumpian tantrum by Bevin. The danger is that some people will believe the governor's (and the president's) autocratic harangues against the judiciary, and that this will erode confidence in the separation of powers, the checks and balances, that have safeguarded our democratic form of government from tyranny for more than two centuries.
As usual, Bevin launched his blast — he called Shepherd "the most incompetent hack of a judge" — during a radio appearance in which he knew his interviewer would not challenge him.
Unlike, say, teachers, a judge is the perfect target for insults because judges can't defend themselves. The judicial conduct code forbids them from commenting on a pending case.
Bevin criticized Shepherd for refusing to allow extensive depositions and discovery at this point in a challenge of the state's new public pension law. The suit was filed by the Kentucky Education Association (teachers), the Fraternal Order of Police (Kentucky police officers) and Attorney General Andy Beshear (whom Bevin considers his nemesis). Some parts of the new law take effect in July, and both sides have agreed to an expedited schedule.
In court, Bevin's general counsel Stephen Pitt had insisted the governor wasn't trying to delay but was merely seeking to understand "34 pages of fact in the case" by questioning the plaintiffs in depositions.
The average person may not be familiar with legal procedure, but can probably understand the intimidation value of threatening a barrage of expensive, time-consuming depositions and discovery. No doubt Pitt and Bevin were hoping for some political theater in which they could embarrass the plaintiffs being deposed.
What Bevin demanded would have been a waste of money and time, especially because, as Shepherd noted, the governor has not identified any areas of factual dispute that are relevant to the "threshold legal issues" that must first be decided. Shepherd, who is widely respected, assured Bevin that if relevant factual disputes are identified, he would allow full discovery.
We're not saying that judges are beyond criticism, far from it. But a governor should disagree without pitching baseless, demagogic fits that undermine a free society's bedrock principles.
This editorial has been updated to delete an error in the original version which incorrectly said that Gov. Matt Bevin had sought a summary judgment in the pension lawsuit.