Politics & Government

Politics plays larger-than-normal role in Lexington race for family court judge

Judge Kathy Stein on Friday October 17, 2014  in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Judge Kathy Stein on Friday October 17, 2014 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

Last year, long-time Lexington politician Kathy Stein stepped down from the state Senate to fill a vacant judgeship in Fayette County Family Court.

One year later, she will fight for that seat against a veteran family court attorney.

Jennifer McVay Martin said she's spent the past 11 years working with families in Lexington's family courts, helping parents and children navigate divorce, custody, abuse, neglect and domestic violence cases.

Martin started out in real estate law in 2003, but family law soon became her full-time specialty after a friend asked her to handle his divorce.

"What I like about family law is what a lot of other practitioners don't like about it — family law is ever-evolving, it's this gray area of the law where you really have to get fact specific with people who are going through some of the worst times of their lives," she said. "I represent a lot of kids, and those are the people who need the voice."

Martin said she thinks her experience would make her a good judge.

"If you've practiced family law day in and day out and you've sat in the hallway and held a client's hand and she doesn't know if she's going to get her kids back, that's what we need on the bench," she said. "We need people who have practiced family law, who have experienced family law and have been in the trenches doing it."

Stein said she, too, has that experience; most of her time as an attorney was spent in family courts, in between her legislative work.

"I love being a judge; I love the involvement with the individuals who come before the court, many of them with very difficult problems," Stein said. "It's an opportunity to use my life's experience coming to this job to try to do some good for folks."

Stein said her judicial style is different from her legislative one.

"In the legislature, I had a reputation as a bleeding heart, but in this job, the law is the law, and I am familiar with the legislative intent of the laws with which I am dealing," she said. "If it appears I'm tougher than people thought, that's the nature of the role change."

Both Stein and Martin support what could be a big change to family court: opening up dependency, neglect and abuse cases to the public when children are not in the courtroom.

"There needs to be more accountability," Martin said.

Despite the race's non-partisan nature, politics has already entered the contest to an unusual degree.

Martin is the granddaughter of prominent Republican activist Shirley Wiseman, and she's garnered donations from the Fayette County Republican Women's Club, the Women Republican Organization of Central Kentucky and the Republican Party of Fayette County. Other donors include Terry and Marion Forcht of Corbin, who are among the biggest Republican donors in the state, and have supported many of Stein's past legislative foes. The Forcht Group was listed as the official bank of American Crossroads, Karl Rove's PAC, in federal campaign finance documents.

That has led some observers to speculate whether Stein is once again a partisan target.

"There have been a lot of people trying to get me out of office for a long time so I don't think about that anymore," Stein said. "I'm not big on conspiracy theories but I recognize there's a block of people who would find it very satisfying to defeat me."

Martin said she had decided to run for the bench last summer when Judge Joanne Wise retired, before Gov. Steve Beshear appointed Stein to the seat.

"I had already been talking to people about it, it was a great opportunity," she said. "I'm not the one trying to make it partisan. I don't think there's any doubt what political party my opponent is, but there's a reason it's non-partisan because your judge needs to know the law and how to apply the law. Personal political agendas do not need to play in a family court."

Judge Lewis Paisley, who retired from the Kentucky Court of Appeals in 2003, also served in Fayette District and Circuit courts and said he can't remember political parties donating directly to judicial races.

"Our non-partisan system has served us well and anything that tends to erode that in a partisan direction is not a good thing," said Paisley, who has donated to Stein in the race.

Some prominent Democrats have also contributed to Stein, but no political organizations, according to filings with the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance.

Carol Rogers, the chairwoman of the Fayette County Republican Party, said her group made the $100 donation because "family court races are important and Jennifer Martin has experience ... we've given money to a lot of candidates we feel like are the best in the race."

Both candidates have raised plenty of money for a judicial race. As of Oct. 3, Stein had raised $24,660 and had $21,460 cash on hand.

Martin had raised $22,260 and had about $9,500 on hand.