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Judge who signed Breonna Taylor search warrant facing rare competition

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Decorative Scales of Justice in the Courtroom

The judge who signed the search warrant to enter Breonna Taylor’s apartment is facing a challenge from a lawyer who has the support of two racial justice groups.

The Circuit Court 5th Division race between current judge Mary M. Shaw and private attorney Tracy Evette Davis is the only contest at that level where an incumbent is fighting to keep their seat.

Shaw was first elected in 2006 and has held the seat since. She ran unopposed for re-election in 2014.

She became linked with one of the most impactful events in recent Louisville history, when in March 2020 she signed the no-knock search warrant for city police officers to enter Taylor’s home, one of five related warrants she signed within 12 minutes. Officers killed Taylor during the raid, leading to major protests and upheaval.

Shaw did not respond to requests for interview for this story, but she completed a short survey for WFPL News’ primary election guide in the spring. She wrote that she acts impartially on the bench.

“My judicial philosophy is to be fair and impartial. I treat everyone who comes into my courtroom with respect and without bias, whether that person is a criminal defendant, a party to a civil lawsuit, a pro-se litigant, an officer or an attorney,” Shaw wrote.

Circuit Court judges in Jefferson County are elected to eight-year terms and occupy one of 13 divisions. All the judges have the same responsibilities, overseeing state-level cases ranging from capital offenses and felonies to civil issues involving more than $5,000.

All of the court’s seats are on the ballot this election, though eight of them have just one candidate, and six of those are incumbents.

A warrant’s impact

In August, three former officers were charged with federal crimes relating to the warrant to enter Breonna Taylor’s home, which was part of an investigation into her ex-boyfriend and later-convicted drug dealer Jamarcus Glover. A fourth former officer is facing federal charges for excessive force.

Kelly Goodlett, who pleaded guilty in September, said in court documents the no-knock warrant application contained falsehoods and misleading statements. She also said detective Joshua Jaynes, who wrote the affidavit, gave the application to Shaw believing she would not scrutinize it closely.

Shaw denied knowing Goodlett or Jaynes in a statement to WDRB in September. 

Louisville banned no-knock warrants in June 2020 amid racial justice protests, while Kentucky lawmakers voted to restrict their use in 2021.

Shaw has been criticized for signing the warrant. Kentucky Democratic Rep. Keturah Herron told the crowd at a rally remembering Breonna Taylor in March that they should go to the polls to vote against Shaw. Davis was among the political candidates at the rally.

But Shaw is still drawing support from some prominent groups, including the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office and Citizens for Better Judges, according to her campaign website.

CBJ is a group of lawyers and other citizens who recommend judicial candidates in Jefferson County. The lawyers interview them and discuss their merits before making endorsements, then the non-lawyer members decide whether to approve their recommendations.

Margaret Keane, CBJ’s chair, said the group could not comment on why they endorsed Shaw in April, citing rules of confidentiality.

“It has served us well for the past 39 years and it is the reason why CBJ’s endorsements are coveted by the candidates and respected in the legal community and by the public at-large,” she wrote in an email.

CBJ made four total endorsements for competitive Circuit Court races, and declined to recommend a candidate for the 7th Division.

For the 4th Division, the group endorsed Ebert Haegele, an assistant commonwealth’s attorney who prosecuted Taylor’s boyfriend Kenneth Walker for shooting at police during the March 2020 raid. Commonwealth’s Attorney Tom Wine later dropped those charges.

A judicial challenger

Shaw competed with Davis and trial attorney Christine Miller for the 5th division seat in the spring primaries. The two highest vote-earners moved on to the general election.

It was a closely-contested race, with less than 6,000 votes separating all three candidates. Shaw received 37,844 votes while Davis, in second place, had 37,706 votes. Miller came in third, with 32,189 votes.

Davis said the number of endorsements she’s received compared to Shaw indicates community support. Her campaign website lists nine total groups, including the Greater Louisville Central Labor Council, Better Schools Kentucky and the equity groups Louisville Showing Up for Racial Justice and the Committee for Fairness and Individual Rights.

Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer, is also supporting Davis, WAVE reported this week.

She also said her nine years of experience dealing with criminal and civil cases as a private attorney makes her different from the judicial candidates who come from state and county attorney’s offices.

“Because I've done thousands of hearings and trials before all the courts, it gives me a different perspective. It allows me to see and to know that, you know, every decision that is made from the bench, every order that is signed, it has an impact on a person's life, on that person's family, on the community at large,” Davis said.

Her challenger, Shaw, said in the WFPL primary election survey that her history as a court judge is vital.

“I have been the sitting judge in Division 5 of Jefferson Circuit Court for over fifteen years… My opponents have no judicial experience and to my knowledge have not even appeared before me as an attorney in Division 5. Experience matters!” Shaw wrote.

Court records show, however, that Davis litigated before Shaw at least a couple of times, including as recently as 2016.

Davis pointed to bail reform as a key issue and said that’s been a focus of the local community. The city’s jail has dealt with overcrowding and deaths, with a dozen people dying in custody in less than a year. She said, as a judge, she could help those she believes are needlessly being held there.

“It's being able to look at those things, review the cases, know the background and be able to come up with a bond that will allow for someone to be able to get out and pay for their litigation, continue to take care of their families and their children while they fight their criminal cases. But balancing that, obviously, with the safety concerns of the community,” Davis said.

She also said that dealing with warrants — the same activity that put Shaw under scrutiny — requires learning as much as possible, even if an officer provides an affidavit.

“They're swearing that the statements that they are making are truthful to you, but there are ways to ask different questions, there are ways to ask for a little bit more information… There are certain questions that, you know, obviously, you can't just go by a hunch,” she said.

Information about judicial candidates and other races is available through the 2022 Voter Guide from LPM.

Jacob is LPM's Business and Development Reporter. Email Jacob at jmunoz@lpm.org.