Ky. Supreme Court strikes down GOP-backed “change of venue” law
In a 6-1 decision, the Kentucky Supreme Court struck down a new “change of venue” law that would have allowed defendants to move certain cases to a randomly selected circuit court. Republicans have long claimed they are treated unfairly in Franklin Circuit Court, where most challenges to new laws are heard.
In this year’s legislative session, the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 126, which would have allowed defendants challenging the constitutionality of laws or the actions of the executive branch to another circuit court. The measure would have allowed the Kentucky Supreme Court’s clerk to choose the new court by random selection.
Generally, plaintiffs get to choose where they file lawsuits, but most cases challenging constitutionality usually end up in Franklin Circuit Court, where Frankfort is located.
Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron was the first to try and implement the “change of venue” law after he asked for a lawsuit over Kentucky’s new ban on so-called “gray machines” be moved to another court. After the plaintiffs complained, Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd asked the Kentucky Supreme Court to weigh in on the legality of the process.
The high court ruled on Thursday that the change of venue measure indeed violates the state Constitution. Chief Justice Laurence VanMeter wrote that the legislature was attempting to intrude on the powers of the judiciary.
“[SB 126] encroaches on the judicial branch’s constitutional authority to adopt rules of practice and procedure for the Court of Justice,” VanMeter wrote. “The Attorney General has failed to show that S.B. 126 was enacted out of absolute necessity or was even necessary at all.”
He also expressed concern that the measure would give the defendant, in this case the attorney general, an “unchecked veto power” to move a case to another judge without any legitimate justification, like a clear bias. Processes already exist to remove judges based on perceived bias.
Only one justice, Robert B. Conley, argued that the law is constitutional, although he also said he thought it unnecessary.
“S.B. 126 is new and it is different from what the judiciary is used to. I deem it unwise, imprudent, inefficient, and inexpedient,” Conley wrote in his dissent. “But I cannot say it is unconstitutional.”
Attorney General Cameron's spokesperson Shellie May expressed disappointment with the ruling.
"The legislature has always had broad authority to decide where lawsuits should be heard. Today’s opinion backtracks on that established principle and diminishes the power of the people’s branch of government," she said.
Defendants in several high-profile cases requested transfers after the law passed earlier this year and were put on hold until the Supreme Court decided whether such a transfer was constitutional.
Those cases can now continue, with their request for random transfer denied. Cases that challenge the constitutionality of state laws often end up on the Kentucky Supreme Court’s docket anyway.
The office of the Attorney General did not immediately return a request for comment.