Justice Mary Noble of Lexington is retiring from the Kentucky Supreme Court just as it’s wading into several high-profile battles over the limits of Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s executive power in areas such as university budget cuts and replacing state boards.
But the two men competing to replace Noble on Nov. 8 are running polite, nonpartisan campaigns. Neither wants to publicly discuss the governor’s legal fights or any other dispute that might land before them. And they appear to share much more than that in common.
Glenn Acree, 61, and Larry VanMeter, 58, both are respected Kentucky Court of Appeals judges who live in Lexington. Both are graduates of the University of Kentucky College of Law. Both say they believe that appellate court rulings should be strictly based on existing precedent, predictable to anyone who understands the law and fair to all parties.
Among the few obvious differences between them is that VanMeter is registered to vote as a Republican and Acree is registered as a Democrat. VanMeter also has far more money to promote himself. As of July, when the most recent campaign finance reports were filed, VanMeter had raised $188,025 compared to Acree’s $19,949.
The seven justices of the Supreme Court are elected to eight-year terms and paid an annual salary of $135,504. (The chief justice, chosen by the others, gets $5,000 more.) They traditionally get the last word on Kentucky law.
The seat Noble is vacating represents the court’s 5th Appellate District, comprised of 11 Central Kentucky counties: Fayette, Scott, Bourbon, Clark, Madison, Jessamine, Franklin, Woodford, Anderson, Mercer and Boyle.
Acree grew up poor in Metcalfe County and enlisted in the Army after high school, spending three years in an intelligence unit listening to intercepted Chinese communications. After his honorable discharge, the G.I. Bill helped him pay for college and law school.
Acree passed the early part of his career as an attorney at the well-connected Lexington law firm run by Democratic lobbyist Terry McBrayer. He specialized in appellate work, writing voluminous briefs that explained why he believed trial court decisions should be upheld or overturned — depending on his client’s position — by state and federal appellate courts.
In 2006, Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher appointed Acree to fill a vacancy on the Court of Appeals, the 14-judge court that sits between the local trial courts and the state Supreme Court. Voters elected Acree to the seat that fall and re-elected him in 2014. For most of the last four years, Acree was selected by his brethren to serve as the court’s chief judge.
“What that basically means is, you get to buy everyone donuts twice a month,” he joked in a recent interview.
Acree said he is drawn to the monastic aspects of appellate law that might bore some people.
“I do love this work. I love the intellectual stimulation of figuring out these complicated problems,” he said. “There is something about the attention to detail, the writing, the presentation, that I’ve always loved.”
However, Acree said he wants to advance to the state’s highest court for a very concrete reason.
Fayette County Attorney Larry Roberts and Fayette District Judge Bruce Bell have created a diversion program in Lexington for parents who are behind in their court-ordered child support, Acree said. Participants can avoid jail if they submit to a realistic payment plan and a rigorous schedule of work, school, counseling and parenthood classes.
“It costs us $14,603 a year to incarcerate someone for non-support, and during that time, he’s not paying his debt, he’s not doing anything, he’s not learning anything,” Acree said. “It accomplishes nothing.”
To his frustration, Acree said, he hasn’t been successful replicating the diversion program elsewhere around Kentucky. But the Supreme Court administers the judicial system.
“If the chief judge of the Court of Appeals can’t get an audience to promote programs like this,” he said, “then maybe a Supreme Court justice can.”
VanMeter said he is especially proud of two career highlights. One, he has spent the last 22 years working his way up the judicial ranks, serving as a judge in Fayette District Court and Fayette Circuit Court before joining the Court of Appeals in 2003. Two, everyone he has defeated in past elections supports his campaign for the Supreme Court. This group includes Lewis Paisley, a longtime judge whom he unseated on the Court of Appeals 13 years ago.
“I like to think that says a lot about the kind of campaigns that I run,” he said recently. “I don’t attack anybody. And I hope it says something about the kind of judge that I’ve been on the bench.”
VanMeter is descended from one of Lexington’s most established dynasties. A lengthy family history that he wrote traces his lineage back to Isaac VanMeter, a wealthy farmer who moved to this area from Virginia in the early 19th century.
He practiced business law — chiefly related to horses, taxes and estates — at the firm then called Stoll, Keenon & Park until 1994, when Democratic Gov. Brereton Jones appointed him to district court. He made headlines nine years later as a circuit court judge by upholding the city’s right to ban smoking in public places. Opponents of the ban appealed, but the Supreme Court sided with him.
That case was a rare controversy for VanMeter, who describes himself as “somewhat on the conservative side.” He’s a strong advocate for stare decisis, a legal principle that says past court decisions should be respected whenever new cases are considered.
“I’ve heard some people say, ‘Well, the Supreme Court can do whatever it wants, that’s why they’re the Supreme Court. But no, that’s not really true,” VanMeter said. “The last thing anyone wants is a judge to be making it up because he has an opinion about what the final outcome of a case should be. What people want is certainty and predictability. When things absolutely have to change, there should be a well-considered change.”
Apart from his Court of Appeals duties, VanMeter is chairman of the Kentucky Judicial Form Retirement System, which manages pension benefits for judges and state legislators. (Unlike the ailing pension funds for Kentucky’s state workers and school teachers, the system VanMeter oversees is properly financed and produces solid investment returns.) He also has served on the Kentucky Judicial Conduct Commission, which investigates complaints of judicial misconduct.
Born: Jan. 16, 1955
Education: Bachelor’s degree in history, University of Kentucky; master’s degree in history, University of Maryland; law degree, UK College of Law
Occupation: Kentucky Court of Appeals judge
Family: Married, two sons