Politics & Government

Two judges in tough fight for Eastern Kentucky's state Supreme Court seat

Will T. Scott, left and Janet Stumbo
Will T. Scott, left and Janet Stumbo

Eight years ago, Will T. Scott narrowly unseated Supreme Court Justice Janet Stumbo in an Eastern Kentucky race that included bare-knuckled broadsides and charges of deceit. Now, with Scott as the incumbent and Stumbo trying to win back the seat, the rematch is no nicer.

Scott has run advertisements accusing Stumbo of being soft on crime. One television ad showed the mug shots of two black men and said Stumbo, who is on the Court of Appeals, voted to overturn their convictions for murdering a pregnant woman.

Stumbo ran an ad saying Scott voted against the abuse conviction of a man who confined three of his young children in their rooms without access to food, water or a bathroom during the summer, while he slept in another room with the only fan. When authorities found the children, all three were soiled, and one had eaten feces, apparently because he was hungry, according to the court decision.

"It's turned pretty harsh," Pikeville attorney Larry Webster said of the race for Kentucky's 7th Supreme Court District, which covers 22 counties in Eastern Kentucky.

Scott's ad featuring photos of the two black men was false and misleading because it used images of pregnant white women apparently not involved in the case, the Kentucky Judicial Campaign Conduct Committee said this week. The committee also said the repetitive use of photos of the black men, juxtaposed with photos of white women, appeared "to be designed to appeal to racial prejudice."

The committee is an independent, non-partisan citizens' group that encourages judicial candidates to avoid false or misleading advertising.

The panel also said that one of Scott's newspaper ads was misleading and that Stumbo's radio ad about the case of the children confined to their rooms was misleading because it said the boy ate feces to "avoid starvation," when the court opinion mentioned only hunger.

Stumbo said she considered that a minor error in language, but she asked media outlets to stop running the ad.

Scott, however, continues to run "100 percent misleading attack ads," Stumbo said in a news release which described Scott's allegedly racially tinged ad as "beyond shameful."

Scott said it was "absolutely not true" that his ad with photos of the two black men was designed to appeal to prejudice. Scott said he picked the cases to show Stumbo's divide from other justices, not because of the race of the defendants or victims.

Scott said he has not run intentionally misleading ads. He is unapologetic about what he sees as his fair-game efforts to define himself and Stumbo.

Voters need information to make an important decision, Scott said, citing a U.S. Supreme Court case that said judicial elections can't be run under rules of "state-imposed voter ignorance" that bar candidates from discussing issues.

The race has been expensive as well as contentious.

Stumbo reported total campaign receipts of $154,108 as of Oct. 22, much of it her own money, and spending of $111,360.

Scott reported campaign receipts of $240,919 as of Oct. 5, much of it carried over from the primary, and spending of just $13,239. That left $227,679 to spend in the last month of the race.

As of Tuesday, the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance had not received Scott's most recent finance report, which was due Oct. 22. There is a one-week grace period.

Stumbo said that Scott would outspend her but that she had the resources to win the race.

There are seven justices on the state's highest court, which decides appeals from lower courts in decisions that interpret state law and set precedent. The justices serve eight-year terms and are paid $135,502 annually.

Janet Stumbo

Stumbo was the first woman elected to the Kentucky Court of Appeals from Eastern Kentucky and the first woman ever elected to the state Supreme Court.

A key issue for her in the race is that the court system needs to be improved, she said. Family courts need to be made available statewide, and adult and juvenile drug courts should be reinstated across Kentucky, she said.

Drug-court staffing has been cut back even though the program produces greater savings than it costs, Stumbo said. If there is no other way to pay for the needed improvements, she said, the court system should consider proposing higher court filing fees.

"I don't think it will restrict access to the courts," Stumbo said of higher filing fees, because poorer people could ask judges to let them file cases for free.

Stumbo said her 21 years of experience as an appellate judge and her ability to build consensus and write clear opinions make her the better choice for the Supreme Court.

Stumbo also said she has worked to improve the courts, heading a pilot program to create family courts and writing rules to make the discipline system for judges and attorneys more open.

Will T. Scott

Scott interrupted college to join the Army, serving in Vietnam before finishing his education.

Scott said he has worked as a public defender, an assistant prosecutor and in private practice, and he cleaned up a backlog of cases after being elected circuit judge in Pike County in 1983, holding court on Saturday at times.

Scott said the state should bring back adult and juvenile drug courts that have been cut.

He says adult drug-court programs could be more effective, however, if the state would create a minimum-security prison so people who make a mistake in drug court could go there for education and counseling, then come back to drug court when they are ready. That would help more people succeed in drug court, getting their lives back on track while saving the state money on prison costs, he said.

Scott, the most senior justice, said he has been able to craft important opinions on the state's high court.

"I've been fighting since I was 19 for my people and for my part of Kentucky," he said.

Conservative or liberal?

Scott has argued during the Supreme Court campaign that he is a conservative, while Stumbo was seen as the most liberal justice when she was on the high court.

"They've got to look at me as a conservative and her as a reliable liberal," Scott said of voters.

During the last five years that Stumbo was on the Supreme Court, she voted to reverse criminal convictions 62 percent of the time in published cases, Scott said.

By contrast, Scott said, he voted to affirm convictions 62 percent of the time during the past five years.

The Kentucky Judicial Campaign Conduct Committee said Scott's claim that Stumbo often sided with criminals "misrepresents the role of a judge or justice, which is to base decisions on the law and not take sides."

Scott, who has been endorsed by state prosecutors, said it's not unusual to have cases decided by a 4-3 vote on the court, illustrating how a single judge's philosophy and outlook can make a vital difference in how cases turn out.

"I've always believed that judicial philosophy is important to the voters," Scott said.

Stumbo said she doesn't think it's fair for Scott to characterize her as a liberal.

"Liberal and conservative are not labels that should be applied to judges," she said.

Judges should not consider the social ramifications of decisions, but rather apply the law to the facts of each case, Stumbo said.

She said she has been sensitive to constitutional rights, including those of accused people. But her votes to vacate convictions meant sending the cases back to a lower court for further action, not dismissing the cases, she said.

"I think that makes me someone who is interested in upholding the law and the Constitution," Stumbo said.