Politics & Government

Court ruling will be Fletcher watershed

FRANKFORT -- Simply put, the coming court decision on whether Gov. Ernie Fletcher must stand trial for charges related to the state hiring investigation may be the make-or-break point for the governor's political and legal future.

That pending decision by special judge David Melcher -- a Family Court judge from Cynthiana -- also could have far-reaching effects on Kentucky's political landscape both in the 2006 legislative elections and next year's governor's race.

Even the perceived integrity of the judicial branch is at stake, observers say.

"I think if you ask most voters, they want a public trial and want everything aired out because there's been so many denials," said Stephen Horner, a legal analyst and former juvenile justice judge from Louisville. "If they don't get it, it looks like good ol' boy politics prevailed."

"I think it would look bad for both the executive branch and the judicial branch."

Prosecutors and the governor's legal defense team will make their final appeals to Melcher in Franklin District Court today.

Merrill Mitchell, the family court administrator in Cynthiana who has handled press calls for Melcher, said yesterday "it is a distinct possibility" that Melcher will rule today on whether any of the misdemeanor charges against the governor should be tossed out. Fletcher is now scheduled to stand trial Nov. 8, the day after the general election.

Fletcher has clearly pinned his hopes of political survival on convincing a judge that a special grand jury was out of bounds in charging him in May with three misdemeanors -- conspiracy, political discrimination and official misconduct -- related to the ongoing personnel investigation.

"When the dust settles from all this sad ordeal in Frankfort, I think people will see what we've done," Fletcher told reporters last weekend in Western Kentucky. "Our record is outstanding."

His top aides have urged supporters around the state for weeks to stay behind the governor because they were confident the charges would be thrown out.

That talk "has gotten back to" Melcher, Mitchell said yesterday. But "he has not expressed comment one way or the other on the effect of it."

Fletcher's attorneys have filed several long motions that assert he did nothing wrong. They also argue that the prosecution of the governor was unfair because past administrations weren't investigated for questionable personnel practices or violations of the state merit laws.

They also say a governor is immune from prosecution for any official acts unless he or she is impeached by the legislature first.

Prosecutors have countered that neither federal cases nor Kentucky's constitution gives a governor such immunity. They claim Fletcher's defense team hasn't met the U.S. Supreme Court's threshold for proving that the governor was unfairly targeted.

Effect on challengers?

Fletcher's indictments, which came down three months ago, almost instantly threw the state's political climate and particularly the Kentucky Republican Party into a state of upheaval.

Soon after, Lt. Gov. Steve Pence dropped off Fletcher's election ticket. Prominent Republicans, led by Senate Republican David Williams, then began questioning Fletcher's re-election chances.

Most recently, Secretary of State Trey Grayson and Paducah businessman Billy Harper have talked openly about running for the Republican nomination for governor next year, perhaps in a primary against Fletcher.

Fletcher already has become a key target of Democrats, as evidenced by speeches at last week's Fancy Farm picnic. And if the case were to go to trial Nov. 8 it would loom large over the state legislative elections.

Grayson said earlier this week that Melcher's ruling will help determine how he charts his course for running for office in 2007 -- whether it is for re-election as secretary of state, as a gubernatorial candidate or as a running mate of another Republican.

"It will have an effect, but this isn't about a court case," Grayson said. "It isn't just about that particular indictment. State government hasn't really worked the last several years going back to the previous administration."

Harper, who runs Harper Industries, Inc. in Paducah, said the court decision won't have an effect on his thought process.

"We're just making our own decision and what the governor does or doesn't do won't matter," Harper said.

Effect on voters?

A Republican Party poll showed last month that only 14 percent of respondents would change their opinion of the governor for the better if the charges were dismissed.

Of the rest, 60 percent said it wouldn't matter, while 23 percent said it would lessen their opinion of him.

"Based on the response I've received the last couple of days, it makes me think there is a significant number of dissatisfied Republicans who are looking for a solution to the problems," Grayson said.

Still, Joe Lowe, Daviess County Republican Party chairman and a talk radio host, said Fletcher can rebound in time for re-election regardless of the judge's decision.

"I don't think there's any doubt that this administration has done a good job in taking state government and running it like a business," he said, specifically citing efficient spending and the management of state parks.

"I think in Daviess County, you will see people who will be loyal to the governor. I think that's the majority," Lowe said.

Democratic Attorney General Greg Stumbo -- who has been ordered by the courts to stay out of the case because he'd expressed interest in running for governor -- said he believes Fletcher has hurt himself in the eyes of voters by repeatedly "refusing to take responsibility."

"Just speaking purely politically, not as an attorney," he said, "the only way the governor can possibly politically regain the confidence that he's lost is to do what everybody else has to do when confronted with this situation: stand trial and be accountable."