Politics & Government

Kentucky judges may identify with political parties, appeals court rules

Judicial candidates and nonpartisan judges in Kentucky are free to identify with a political party and participate in political activities, but not contribute to a political organization or candidate under a decision handed down Wednesday by the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

Judge Jeffrey Sutton wrote the opinion, upholding much of what U.S. District Judge Amul R. Thapar decided in May.

The appellate court overturned two portions of Thapar’s decision: one that allowed judges and judicial candidates to contribute to political organizations, and another that dealt with false statements. The appeals court also vacated a ruling by Thapar that dealt with judges committing to decide cases a specific way before hearing the cases.

“Regulating campaign speech is not easy,” Sutton wrote. “It’s not supposed to be. But treating elections for the courts just like elections for the political branches does not make sense either.”

The decision stemmed from a 2014 lawsuit Court of Appeals Judge Allison Jones and 2014 judicial candidates Robert A. Winter Jr. and Cameron A. Blau challenged the Kentucky Judicial Conduct Commission over rules that limited the political behavior of judges and judicial candidates.

Blau is running for a Northern Kentucky district court seat in this year’s election.

Christopher Wiest, the attorney for Winter and Blau, said candidates need to speak truthfully if the state is going to elect judges. That includes allowing them to be truthful about their political affiliation.

“No person comes to any public office as a blank slate,” Wiest said. “Everyone has their views of the world, and I think the public has a right to know those views.”

This is not the first time the Court of Appeals has overturned Kentucky’s judicial conduct rules. In 2010, the court ruled that judicial candidates could publicly share their political views and warned Kentucky against creating judicial conduct rules that infringed on free speech.

The court gave a similar warning Wednesday.

“If the commission wishes to impose mandatory sanctions on the speech of judicial candidates for office, as opposed to nonenforceable guidelines or best practices,” Sutton wrote, “it must satisfy the rigors of the First Amendment in doing so.”

Daniel Desrochers: 502-875-3793, @drdesrochers and @bgpolitics