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Minton identifies judicial partisanship, climate change among challenges facing Kentucky’s courts in final address to lawmakers

Kentucky Chief Justice John D. Minton, Jr. delivers the "State of the Judiciary" address in Frankfort.
via KET
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Kentucky Chief Justice John D. Minton, Jr. delivers the "State of the Judiciary" address in Frankfort.

The head of Kentucky’s judicial branch of government addressed members of the General Assembly for the final time Thursday, capping off a 14-year stint leading the commonwealth’s Supreme Court.

Chief Justice John D. Minton, Jr. of Bowling Green was elected to the high court in 2006 before his colleagues chose him to serve as chief in 2008. Minton’s “State of the Judiciary” address to members of the legislature’s Interim Joint Committee on the Judiciary touched on his accomplishments leading Kentucky’s courts, while also warning lawmakers on the challenges facing the judicial branch.

Minton’s tenure as chief justice coincided with two periods of time that brought budget challenges and uncertainty to state government: the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic. He began his address by reflecting on the hardships posed by those time periods, and the upheaval they brought to the court system.

"I could not have imagined what lay ahead for me in terms of unprecedented challenges, but neither could I have anticipated the scope of what we were about to accomplish," Minton said.

The recession caused major budget deficits that forced staff furloughs and courthouse closures throughout the commonwealth. Ten years later, the COVID-19 pandemic forced many changes in how the state administers justice.

“As society shut down, the courts were forced immediately to move from in-person to virtual operations,” Minton said. “The hard work and extreme patience of our judges, circuit clerks, and court personnel helped us to weather the storm.”

Restrictions on in-person court proceedings are now lifted, but remote appearances have stuck around in many jurisdictions as a convenient way to bring together attorneys and clients from multiple areas without forcing travel to courthouses.

“We will continue to make available virtual court appearances whenever we possibly can to accommodate lawyers, their clients, and the people that we serve.”

Minton said pandemic and recession-related disruptions to the court system did not stop his team from modernizing the judiciary. The chief justice touted the rollout of electronic court filing, updated case management systems, and online warrant services as key accomplishments of his tenure.

In addition to reviewing the successes of his time on the bench, Minton used his address to implore lawmakers for more financial support. The two-year budget passed in this year’s session of the General Assembly made historic investments in the commonwealth’s courts, including eight percent pay raises for many judicial branch employees. However, Minton said the salary hikes aren’t enough to make Kentucky competitive with neighboring states offering elected and non-elected officials higher salaries and stronger benefits. The disparity is especially high among judges, he noted, which increases the difficulty of finding qualified candidates to run for judicial office.

“Inadequate pay is not only disheartening for the current judges, but it’s a hindrance to attracting the best and brightest attorneys to leave private practice and enter public service,” Minton told lawmakers.

Eliminating salary gaps with other states, implementing the judicial redistricting plan, and turning the focus of the courts to treating substance abuse are long-term solutions Minton identified as helping to reduce caseloads and improve efficiency in the court system.

Minton drew the ire of some Republican lawmakers by issuing a stark warning on the dangers climate change poses to the work of Kentucky’s judges. Natural disasters and extreme weather caused by climate change are causing problems for Kentucky’s court system, according to Minton. He told the panel the judiciary needs to be ready to respond to future disasters, after deadly tornadoes in western Kentucky and flooding in eastern Kentucky disrupted court operations throughout the last year.

“With time running out, we need to escalate our emergency planning to minimize future property loss and reduce disruption in our courts,” Minton said.

GOP State Representative Patrick Flannery of Carter County directly responded during the hearing to Minton’s calls for climate action.

“I must say that I find it very concerning that you believe one of the biggest issues facing the Courts of Justice is climate change. And that it’s very concerning that you would even insert those comments into this forum,” Flannery said.

Other legislators expressing skepticism included Harlan Republican Senator Johnnie Turner, who questioned the existence of climate change based on anecdotal family experiences of turbulent weather throughout history, and Pikeville Senator Philip Wheeler, who doubted the authority of the courts to handle climate-related issues.

“I would think that would fall within the policing powers of the legislature to create energy policy,” Wheeler said.

“Well, if the legislature can control the weather,” Minton responded.

Minton’s other warning call for lawmakers dealt with judicial independence. Minton cautioned members of the committee on the dangers of politicizing the judiciary.

“The state of the judicial branch in Kentucky is strong, and nothing is more paramount than preserving its independence.”

Multiple cases challenging the constitutionality of bills enacted by the General Assembly are currently pending before the commonwealth’s high court. Kentucky’s judges have increasingly been forced to weigh in on high-profile issues including abortion and the powers of the governor.

Minton’s retirement marks the end of an era for the Kentucky judiciary. The outgoing chief justice said he looks forward to spending time with family, gardening, and expanding his beekeeping operation in retirement.

The new makeup of the court will be determined by elections in November. Court of Appeals Judge Kelly Thompson and Bowling Green attorney Shawn Alcott are facing off for Minton’s seat. Other contested Supreme Court races include an open seat in Louisville created by the retirement of Deputy Chief Justice Lisabeth Hughes, and a northern Kentucky race pitting incumbent Justice Michelle Keller against Republican State Representative Joe Fischer.

Kentucky’s next chief justice will be chosen by the members of the high court following the state’s upcoming general election.