FRANKFORT — Former Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice Joseph Lambert said Thursday he was dropping his plans to run for attorney general this year because the current chief justice, John D. Minton Jr., declined to give him a leave of absence from the senior judge program.
The program allows retired judges to hear a limited number of cases.
Lambert said in a statement that he had planned to file papers Thursday to seek this year's Republican nomination for attorney general.
"Essential to my planning was a leave of absence from the senior judge program," Lambert said. "The statute and the administrative rules of the program expressly provide for a 'deferment' of senior judge duties for up to 60 months, and a few years ago another senior judge was granted such a deferment to pursue an educational opportunity.
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"However, the chief justice declined to grant me any deferment."
Minton said guidelines Lambert set up in April 2005 for the senior judge program do have a provision that permits a deferment from the program, but Minton said he does not think a sitting judge should stay on the bench and run for a partisan political office.
"I discussed with former Chief Justice Lambert that as chief justice I felt obligated to protect the judicial branch from involvement in partisan politics," Minton said. "I felt a hiatus from the program to participate in a partisan race was not in the best interest of the program and the people of Kentucky."
Minton said he has never granted any deferments, but he said Lambert granted a deferment in 2000 for a Jefferson circuit judge who wanted to complete a degree at Yale.
"We have never interrupted the program to allow a participant to participate in a partisan race," Minton said.
Asked whether he, a Democrat, was trying to help a Democratic candidate for attorney general, Minton said: "My obligation as chief justice of Kentucky is to maintain that the judicial branch be free of partisan politics, and the best way that I knew to do that was to follow the dictates of Kentucky's constitution, which prohibits any sitting judge from running for political office.
"I would hold senior status judges to the same constitutional requirement."
Lambert was not available for comment after issuing the statement Thursday. However, Jason Nemes, a spokesman for Lambert, said Lambert was seeking the deferment so he would not have been a sitting judge.
Minton noted that the senior judge program "provides a very rich retirement benefit, and Chief Justice Lambert and others have benefited from it."
Minton also said he did not know why Lambert initiated the deferment process in 2005. At the time, Lambert had been mentioned as a possible candidate for governor in 2007.
Lambert said in his statement that his service as a senior judge is about two-thirds complete.
"If I resigned from the program without completion, I would sustain a permanent major loss of earned retirement benefits. I was prepared to accept this loss if I were elected attorney general. I had planned to serve one or two terms and then fully retire," he said.
It could not be immediately determined how much money Lambert was talking about.
One person has filed so far for the attorney general's race — Hopkins County Attorney Todd P'Pool, a Republican. P'Pool announced this week that Larry Cox, a former aide to U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, will be assisting his campaign.
Lambert spokesman Nemes said P'Pool and Cox played no role "whatsover in Lambert's decision."
Democrat Jack Conway, the state's current attorney general, has said he plans to file for re-election.
The filing deadline is Jan. 25.