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Campaign for Fayette judge is costly free-for-all

The district judge election in Fayette County has attracted eight candidates and a record amount of campaign cash.

The eight lawyers running in the general election free-for-all have raised a combined $237,000 in four months, making it the costliest district court race ever held in Fayette County, according to campaign finance reports filed with the state earlier this week.

This year's total is more than double the amount raised in Fayette County's last contested district court election in 2006, when incumbent Chief District Judge Megan Lake Thornton raised $72,600 and defense lawyer Marcel Bush Radomile $34,300, for $107,000 between them in the primary and general elections.

It's also more than what four candidates raised in two contested Fayette Circuit Court races in 2004.

Several candidates decried the amount of money involved in the race, while others noted it's simply the reality of mounting a successful campaign in a media driven society.

"I think it's insane," said Keith Horn, an Urban County Government lawyer who is running in Tuesday's election. "I don't believe it should take that much money to run for judicial office."

The biggest donors have been the candidates themselves, who through the last reporting deadline, Oct. 20, have donated or loaned $109,000 to their campaigns.

Most of that has come from three candidates: lawyer Dan Miller ($66,000), lawyer John Tackett ($28,000) and former Assistant County Attorney Sally Manning ($10,000.)

The other candidates running are George Allgeier, a Fayette traffic court commissioner and private lawyer; Kimberly Henderson Baird, an assistant commonwealth's attorney; Joyce Merritt, a lawyer in private practice; and Julie Muth Goodman, a former Fayette assistant commonwealth's attorney who was appointed in August to fill the seat until this election.

The candidates attributed the massive haul to the large number of candidates running. Normally only two candidates are on the ballot in the general election. But Judge David Hayse retired in June, after the primary election. That meant any lawyer who met eligibility requirements could get on the ballot.

Miller defended pouring so much of his own money into his race. "It is a necessary evil; I wish it didn't have to happen," Miller said. "To be competitive you have to be adequately financed."

Miller said that he thought it was "distasteful to rely on others, to ask them for money for my race."

District court judges, who make $111,552 a year, oversee cases involving misdemeanors, traffic tickets, small-claims lawsuits, civil lawsuits involving less than $4,000, child abuse and neglect and probate matters. They serve four-year terms.

Obtainable judicial vacancies rarely open up because incumbent judges, particularly in the circuit and district courts, are rarely defeated for re-election. Defeating a sitting judge is so difficult that most judicial elections are uncontested.

When judicial elections are contested in Kentucky, they typically involve a gubernatorial appointee who has not been on the job for very long, such as Goodman.

Former Supreme Court Justice James E. Keller says he never faced opposition for re-election in his 22 years as a circuit judge in Fayette County.

"Judges are easy to judge on whether they are doing a good job or not because they are doing that job out in the public every day on that district court bench," Keller said. "If they are doing a good job, and people are aware of that, people are going to keep them."

Several of the candidates said they ran because they knew the campaign would last only a few months. Candidates typically endure a year long — or more — grind through the primary and general elections.

Allgeier, who has raised $1,550, is largely self-funding his campaign.

"In a judicial race you basically got four groups of people that you're going to solicit funds from: that's your family, your friends, your clients and your colleagues," he said. "I am not comfortable in asking any of those groups for money."

But Allgeier doesn't see public financing for judicial races as a solution. He said taxpayers are overburdened as it is.

Baird has raised $5,930 in her race. She said her career as a prosecutor — who generally do not make as much as private lawyers — places her at a substantial disadvantage compared to wealthier candidates.

Baird is relying on yard signs, radio ads and a grass-roots get-out-the-vote effort to win.

"I didn't come from a law firm, I didn't come from the equestrian federation," Baird said. "I am not married to anyone with money. I am a community servant, I give back to the community. The circle of people I have around me are not people who have money. A lot of what I am running on is sweat equity and tears."

Tackett, the son of former District Judge Julia Tackett, said he's been saving his whole life for a run at office.

Tackett said he's also worried about whether campaign money hurts the court system's credibility. But the only way to win is to spend money, he said.

"Once you commit to running, you go all in and commit as much as you possibly can and try to win the first time," Tackett said.

Manning, who has has raised $53,000, said that ideally judges would be appointed by a special panel rather than elected.

Manning said she has personally contributed $25,000 more since her last report was filed.

She said that judicial campaigns should be publicly financed. But she said she doesn't begrudge candidates who self-finance their campaign.

"Whether it's fair, no," Manning said. "But life isn't fair sometimes."

Merritt said she's not worried about a candidate being able to buy a judgeship. She said they still have to support in the community and campaign hard to win.

She noted that the $28,425 she's raised does not include any personal contributions.

"I think that it is a good thing to have a lot of individual donors referenced on your report," Merritt said. "It indicates that you have a lot of community support."