A proposed amendment to the state constitution would increase the years of experience an attorney would need to be considered qualified to become a District judge.
The head of the state District Judges Association said the amendment is necessary because the responsibilities of District judges have grown and changed since the position was created in the 1970s.
The amendment, Constitutional Amendment 2, will be on the November ballot. If approved by voters, the amendment will require that attorneys have eight years of experience before they can run for, or be appointed to, a District judgeship.
The amendment would also increase the length of a District judge’s term in office to eight years, which is the term served by Circuit Court, Family Court and Court of Appeals judges and Supreme Court justices, and could increase the terms of Commonwealth’s Attorneys to eight years.
Judge J. Foster Cotthoff, a Christian County District Court judge and president of the District Judges Association, said the duties performed by District Courts were originally handled by county judge-executives. That changed when state legislators passed judicial reform in 1975, which created District Courts.
The first District Courts started work in 1978, and District judges handled misdemeanor criminal cases, traffic offenses, juvenile cases, probate and small claims disputes.
In the beginning, officials “couldn’t find people to do the job,” partly because District judges weren’t well-paid, Cotthoff said. The requirement that attorneys only have two years of experience was put in place because it was hoped the positions would appeal to young attorneys, he said.
The position “was very limited at the time,” Cotthoff said. “Since 1975, more and more was put on us.”
Today, District judges handle issues that weren’t thought of when the position was created, such as involuntary hospitalizations for mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment and the handling of juveniles. Some District judges also run specialty courts across the state, such as Drug Courts and Mental Health Court, Cotthoff said.
“I can’t imagine running for judge when I was 28, but I would have been eligible to,” he said.
Requiring candidates to have more experience to become a District judge will give the public “confidence in the bench,” and provide better outcomes to people who come before the court, Cotthoff said.
“Evictions are a big deal right now,” Cotthoff said. “In a pandemic, we have to make sure we are doing the right thing in every case … You gain empathy with life experiences and the maturity you gain.
“We like to say District Court is the people’s court,” Cotthoff said. “.... You have to be able to communicate (so people) feel like they have been treated properly. It just helps having that experience as a lawyer. “
James Mayse, 270-691-7303, firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @JamesMayse