Kentucky voters decide on justice system term lengths, qualifications

Updated: Oct. 19, 2020 at 6:27 PM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - Voters are already making decisions at the ballot box and from home in the 2020 General Election.

In Kentucky, they’ll have to decide on Amendment 2 - whether to change the state constitution when it comes to district court judges and commonwealth’s attorneys.

Voters will be asked the following question statewide, then given the options to pick ‘yes’ or ‘no’:

“Are you in favor of changing the term of Commonwealth’s Attorneys from six‐year terms to eight‐year terms beginning in 2030, changing the terms of judges of the district court from four‐year terms to eight‐year terms beginning in 2022, and requiring district judges to have been licensed attorneys for at least eight years beginning in 2022, by amending the Constitution of Kentucky to read as stated below?”

Ballots then list the specific changes in language the constitution would face following this question.

Those in favor of increasing the experience requirements for district court judges, like the Kentucky District Judges Association, point to the fact that 92 percent of cases in Kentucky’s court of justice are currently handled by district courts.

In Kentucky, voters have to decide on Amendment 2 - whether to change the state constitution...
In Kentucky, voters have to decide on Amendment 2 - whether to change the state constitution when it comes to district court judges and commonwealth's attorneys.(WAVE 3 News)

“We make very, very important decisions in families lives,” Hon. Judge Stephanie Pearce Burke, the Vice President of KDJA and Jefferson County District Judge, said. “To know that the person in front of them have little to no experience, may have never tried a case or never had a client. That might give them a lot of concern.”

While members of the judicial branch often face strict rules when it comes to political campaigning, Burke said the KDJA were granted permission to advocate on behalf of the amendment.

It has created a website and Facebook page to do that.

Critics of the amendment claim the change would make it harder to draw rural applicants.

“One [county] I represent, that I can think, there’s just not a lot of potential applicants out there,” Sen Wil Schroder, (R) Wilder, said. “I do agree that two years is a really short time. I wish we could’ve done four.”

Schroder, a Kentucky state lawmaker, voted against moving the measure out of committee earlier in the year. The bill to put it on the ballot in fall 2020 ultimately passed the House 80-8, and the Senate 25-7, with bipartisan support.

Proponents of increasing term limits for district court judges from four to eight years claim it would attract more qualified, diverse applicants to the bench.

Burke added, campaigning every four years, which is self-funded for judges, can be costly. She said lengthening the term would spread out those costs and allow more people to justify running.

Increasing the terms of commonwealth’s attorneys from six to eight years in 2030 would align that office’s election years with district court judges.

Amendment supporters said that’s important for ensuring Kentuckians have judicial resources adequately allocated.

“You couldn’t redraw the line in the year that the judges were going to be elected, and then have prosecutors serving in an area where they weren’t elected,” Burke said.

She said the legislature, which reallocates judges and prosecutors, has had a difficult time deciding how to proceed in that situation in the past.

Burke adds, if resources aren’t properly distributed, cases may take longer to be heard.

Those against the change also claim it makes the two offices less accountable.

Schroder said he believes an eight-year term is too long, even if that’s the practice for other judicial positions in Kentucky.

“I just think that eight-year terms are really long for any judge, or any elected official in Kentucky,” he said.

Marsy’s Law is the other constitutional amendment Kentuckians will see on their ballots in 2020.

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