Bill to move state lawsuits out of Franklin Circuit Court advances, despite chief justice opposition

Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd | Photo by Joe Sonka

A bill that would allow lawsuits against state agencies and officials to be moved outside of Franklin Circuit Court passed out of a Senate committee Monday morning, despite testimony against it from the chief justice of the Kentucky Supreme Court.

Senate Bill 2, sponsored by Republican Senate President Robert Stivers, would allow state officials and agencies that are often sued in Frankfort to demand that their cases be moved to another randomly selected county court and judge.

Chief Justice John Minton took the unusual step of testifying against SB 2 on Monday in the Senate Judiciary Committee, imploring legislators to vote against it because of the “ruinous effect” it would have on the state’s court system.

“We have conjured up a hurricane to extinguish a match,” said Minton. “I implore you, don’t do this to the system. Don’t do this to the system.”

Stivers and other Republican legislators have complained that Franklin Circuit Court has too much power by handling lawsuits dealing with legislation and actions of state government, whose two judges are elected in the county where most voters are Democrats.

In addition to these legislators criticizing the specific decisions of Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd — such as his decision last year striking down the public pension law, before a unanimous decision of the Kentucky Supreme Court upheld it — Gov. Matt Bevin has repeatedly called him a partisan “hack.”

Minton took aim at the bill’s broad language, noting that it could be interpreted as allowing anyone employed by the state to demand that any lawsuit filed against them — even if had nothing to do with their job or state government — be moved to another county.

The chief justice also stated that the bill would create special rights for state officials that other citizens in the state do not have, which would be a clear violation of the state constitution.

Before SB 2 passed out of the committee, Stivers said that he would add a floor amendment when the bill reaches the full Senate to clarify that such a demand could only be made by state officials if they were sued in their official capacities related to their job.