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For the First Time in 40 Years, Kentucky's Circuit, Appellate Courts Will Be Redrawn

As Kentucky's circuit judges' eight-year terms come to an end this year, the state legislature and Supreme Court have begun developing a strategy to redraw the state's appellate and circuit courts for the first time in more than 40 years.In a recent legislative committee meeting, Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice John Minton announced the start of the judiciary branch's massive redistricting undertaking, starting with an enormous study of each circuit's caseloads and responsibilities to be completed by January 2016.The study was prompted by a mandate in the 2014 Judicial Branch Budget, calling on the courts to begin the complex process.“I think it's really important for us, for the validity of our process, to demystify the thing, as quickly, as easily as we can,” said Minton. “There's a lot of fear in some places about what a study like this might show.”The Kentucky Supreme Court is constitutionally mandated to periodically adjust the boundaries of appellate court boundaries according to population, though Minton said the task has not been undertaken since 1972.… Kentucky has 95 non-family circuit judges with an average caseload of 1,209 filings per year, but some circuits have almost double the average caseload. These circuits are also seated in areas that are experiences heavy population growth, such as in Jessamine and Bullitt counties and in northern Kentucky.Likewise, some circuits such as those in Floyd, Knott and Magoffin Counties and other western Kentucky areas are dropping in population and see less than half the average caseload.Jason Nemes, writing for LawReader, has argued for redrawing circuit court boundaries, noting that “Floyd County is its own circuit, has three circuit judges (one is a family court), lost seven percent of its population over the last 10 years, and would still be well below the average caseload if it lost one of its circuit judges.”Here’s a complete listing off circuit court caseloads across the state here.Minton said the redistricting study and plan itself may be complicated and arduous, but the hardest part will be when a legislators must vote whether to lose or gain a judge in their circuit. Nothing the Supreme Court will do will effect the term of any term of a judge currently in office.Also encouraging action from the courts, state Sen. John Schickel, R-Union, testified before the committee last Wednesday.“There's no denying that our system is out of whack. I mean, all you have to do is look at the numbers . We currently don't have equal justice under the law, we're not anywhere close,” said Schickel. “Our busiest judges have three times—more than three times—the caseload than our judges in other areas of the state.“So I don't know how you can possibly say that someone stands before the court equally when we have that kind of discrepancies in our law.”In the 2014 session of the General Assembly, Schickel sponsored a measure which called on the courts to re-circuit, and although the measure failed to pass the House, Schickel said he will re-file the bill in the 2015 session.During the state's legislative redistricting in 2012, the Kentucky Supreme Court struck down the state House’s redistricting plan as unconstitutional. Included with the House maps were Senate maps and proposed court maps. The court maps included in the plan had not been adjusted but reflected the circuits as they are presently. But because the Supreme Courts ruling bound the three together, the court maps—which are now being used—were also ruled unconstitutional, making both current appellate, circuit and Supreme Court districts potentially unconstitutional.Minton said the assembled team of justices who will create a plan for the re-circuiting of the courts will include district judges, circuit judges, circuit clerk members, and state prosecutors, who will also be affected by the new circuits.

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