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With Executive Power Expansions, Gov. Bevin Draws Lawsuits

J. Tyler Franklin

Only six months into his first term in office, Gov. Matt Bevin is involved in an array of lawsuits, some of which may have ramifications long beyond his administration.

Executive orders made by Bevin have raised legal questions about the limits of the executive branch’s power in the state — power that has been flexed more by some governors than others.

Former Republican Secretary of State Trey Grayson said Bevin is set on reestablishing the “preeminence” of the governor’s office.

“He seems to be trying to assert power in a way that the last couple governors didn’t,” said Grayson, now CEO of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

That assertion of executive power has drawn plenty of critics, some of whom are suing the administration.

A group of labor unions and injured workers have sued Bevin for his executive order overhauling the Worker’s Compensation Nominating Commission — a group that recommends judges who rule on worker’s compensation claims to the governor.

Bevin has reorganized several other boards and commissions, including the University of Louisville Board of Trustees, the Kentucky Horse Park Commission, the Kentucky Racing Commission and the Kentucky Retirement Systems Board of Trustees. The overhauls have involved abolishing the boards along with their appointed members, then reinstating the organizations with new appointees and — in some cases — different structures.

Attorney General Andy Beshear has also sued Bevin for budget reductions the governor made to the state’s current-year funding of Kentucky colleges and universities.

Grayson said the ultimate decisions — which are currently working their way through the courts — will help draw lines over the governor’s authority and power.

“I get the sense that Gov. Bevin wants to go right up to that line,” Grayson said. “If he’s got the power, he wants to use it to try to effect change. And that’s not something we’ve seen in Frankfort for awhile.”

Bevin is just the second Republican governor of Kentucky elected in the last four decades. His GOP predecessor, Gov. Ernie Fletcher, faced a similar legal challenge from then-Attorney General Greg Stumbo, now the Democratic Speaker of the House, over the executive branch’s powers.

Johnathan Miller, who was state treasurer during Fletcher’s tenure, said despite the charged political atmosphere, the challenges help solve important legal questions.

“The public might not like to see officials fighting, but when it’s done in a civil way, it really can help clarify how government should work,” Miller said.

The litigation could have political repercussions in contested elections for 65 state House of Representatives races this fall. But when it comes down to how much the lawsuits could help or hurt Bevin or influence voters, Miller said the battles would ultimately depend on the governor’s record.

“When the outcome is decided, and if it gives Bevin more flexibility to exercise power, I think voters will judge how he uses that power, and that will be the deciding factor,” Miller said.

Here’s a rundown of the lawsuits Bevin's administration is facing over actions that have expanded executive power:

Workers Compensation Board Reorganization

A group of labor unions and workers have sued Bevin for abolishing and then reinstating the Workers Compensation Nominating Commission. The move terminated seven commissioners nominated by former Gov. Steve Beshear before their terms ended.

The commission recommends appointments of administrative law judges who hear workers’ compensation claims.

Bevin says the move helps stymie “pay-to-play” politics and that there’s precedent for reorganizing commissions.

Two weeks ago, a Franklin Circuit Court judge forbade Bevin from appointing any workers compensation judges until a final ruling is reached unless they were nominated by the old commission.

Kentucky Retirement Systems Board Chair Ouster

In April, Bevin dismissed the chairman of the Kentucky Retirement Systems Board of Trustees, Tommy Elliott, who was appointed to another four-year term last year by former Gov. Beshear.

Elliott has sued Bevin, claiming the governor didn’t have the authority to unseat him.

On Friday, Bevin abolished the Kentucky Retirement Systems Board of Trustees and replaced it with the Kentucky Retirement Systems Board of Directors. The group manages the state pensions for most state workers. The pension system oversees about $16 billion in pension assets.

Bevin’s move left the board’s 13 members in place while adding four new appointees to the group.

Education Cuts

Attorney General Andy Beshear is suing Bevin over an executive order that reduced the amount of money going to state colleges and universities by 2 percent — about $18 million.

A Franklin Circuit Court judge already ruled in Bevin’s favor, saying the governor has the authority to reduce higher education’s current-year appropriation.

Beshear has appealed the decision and requested that the case be fast-tracked past the Kentucky Court of Appeals and go straight to the Kentucky Supreme Court. The high court hasn’t approved the expedited schedule.


House Speaker Greg Stumbo is suing Bevin, saying the governor improperly vetoed several bills approved at the end of this year’s legislative session.

Stumbo says Bevin violate the state constitution by not including “veto messages” that explain the rationale for the vetoes. He also says some of the vetoes were delivered improperly to his office rather than the secretary of state’s office.

A date hasn’t been set for an official hearing.

Planned Parenthood

A ruling in Bevin’s lawsuit against Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky is expected to come soon.

Bevin sued Planned Parenthood in January after the organization announced it had begun providing abortions its Louisville location, making it the third abortion site in the state. Bevin’s lawyers argue that Planned Parenthood did not have a license to provide abortions and conducted 23 procedures illegally.

The Planned Parenthood branch said it began offering abortion services with state approval received in the final days of Gov. Steve Beshear’s administration.

EMW Women’s Clinic Closure

Last week, the Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Bevin’s request to close the Lexington abortion clinic, EMW.

Bevin sued the organization, saying it didn’t have a valid license to provide abortions. The case has not yet been appealed.

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