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Judge rules new limits on Jefferson Co. Board of Education are unconstitutional

Some judges are releasing young people facing charges to protect them from the spread of COVID-19.
Airman 1st Class Joseph Barron
A gavel rests inside the court room of the 100th Air Refueling Wing base legal office at RAF Mildenhall, England, May 28, 2019. The attorneys in the legal office offer commanders legal advice and also provide services like notaries, power of attorneys, wills and legal assistance to Team Mildenhall. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Joseph Barron)

A judge ruled this week that new limits state lawmakers put on the Jefferson County Board of Education are unconstitutional.

“There is no intellectually honest way to describe the provisions in question as anything other than an arbitrary assertion of power,” Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Charles Cunningham wrote in a ruling issued Monday. “It is not even a close call.”

Earlier this year, the Republican-led General Assembly passed restrictions singling out the JCBE and limiting its ability to meet and make decisions about daily operations and expenses. Lawmakers provided little explanation for the new restrictions. Some JCPS leaders accused state Republicans of attempting to punish the board over political differences.

The school board sued, and Cunningham sided with the board, ruling that the JCBE does not have to follow the new provisions.

Cunningham agreed with the board’s argument that the provisions violate the Kentucky Constitution because they are directed at the JCBE and no other school district.

“The voters, parents, students, and taxpayers of Jefferson County are entitled to equal protection under the law,” the judge wrote. 

Cunningham says the state constitution prohibits “special legislation,” or legislation written to create regulations specific to a certain local entity, especially when it comes to matters of public education.

Attorney General Daniel Cameron, a Republican, argued that the law, Senate Bill 1, does not constitute special legislation because it doesn’t name the JCBE specifically, but instead targets a “class” of districts that are located in a county with a consolidated city-county government. 

However, the judge noted, JCPS is the only district to which that description applies.

“If the language of SB1 was all it took to enact special or local legislation, truly silly classifications could, and no doubt would, proliferate,” Cunningham wrote.

The judge cited as an example Edmonson County, home to Mammoth Cave:

“If [Edmonson] County did something to irritate the leadership in the General Assembly, and those leaders decided to single it out for retribution, all they'd have to do is designate the law to apply to all counties containing a cave system greater than 400 miles in length.”

“Taken in the other direction, if a recent Governor had wanted to get some relief from our pesky traffic laws, he might have persuaded his Republican pals in the House and Senate to pass a bill saying that no one named Matt Bevin residing at 531 Barberry Lane in Louisville was required to comply with [state traffic laws],” he continued.

JCBE chair Diane Porter praised the judge’s decision in a statement.

“This ruling confirms our assertion that parts of Senate Bill 1 unfairly and unconstitutionally singled out Jefferson County and would interfere with our ability to represent the interests of the citizens and students in our school district,” Porter wrote. 

Kentucky Commissioner of Education Jason Glass seemed to welcome the decision as well in a statement from Kentucky Department of Education spokesperson Toni Konz Tatman.

“Going forward, we urge the General Assembly to consider the Kentucky Constitution’s prohibition on special or local legislation which would have the effect of treating particular Kentuckians and their communities differently as they enact educational laws,” Tatman wrote.

Glass was named as a defendant in the case because his position would require him to enforce the new law. However, attorneys for the department submitted a reply to the court in favor of the board.

A spokesperson for the attorney general’s office told WFPL News Cameron plans to appeal.

Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.

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