Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice John Minton said Wednesday that the court system supports making changes to all trial court circuits across the state in an effort to redistribute judges to areas of need and to expand Family Courts to unserved areas.
Minton said he will advocate for lawmakers to take up Circuit Court and District Court redistricting in next year’s General Assembly, which begins in January.
Minton spoke about the need for changing judicial boundaries Tuesday during a meeting of the interim state government committee in Frankfort. In an interview Wednesday, Minton said he supports statewide changes taking effect in 2030, but there are several circuits across the state that need assistance right away.
One of those areas of need is the Sixth Circuit, which is Daviess County. Daviess County has one permanent Family Court judge, and one District Court judge from Hancock County serving as a second Family Court judge. But that arrangement is expected to end at the end of 2022, leaving the county with judge one Family Court judge if lawmakers don’t make changes.
“There are some places where there are immediate needs, and we identified them in the last session,” Minton said Wednesday. “I would hope the General Assembly would recognize those needs and take action sooner.”
Trial court circuits need to be changed to address “the unequal distribution of the workload across the state,” Minton said. “We have judges with too much to do, and judges with too little to do.
“There has got to mean a significant course correction of how the districts are drawn and how the work is distributed,” he said.
A statewide redistricting plan was put forward in 2017. It passed the Senate before dying without a vote in the House.
After the 2017 plan failed, a scaled-down plan was introduced in 2018 and changes to some judicial circuits were approved. That led to an attempt during this year’s session by Rep. DJ Johnson, an Owensboro Republican, to move Hancock County into the Sixth Circuit with Daviess County.
That plan would have resulted in a judgeship from the 38th Circuit becoming a permanent second Family Court judgeship for Daviess and Hancock counties.
The House approved Johnson’s bill, but the Senate passed the bill with a number of additions that would have created Family Court judges in other circuits. The House didn’t agree with the Senate’s changes, and the bill died on the last day of the legislative session.
Minton said he and Johnson worked together on the bill during the session.
“He (Johnson) did a lot to bring the (second) Family Court judgeship to Daviess County, and he deserves credit,” Minton said. “He is someone I would turn to” on future work on the issue, he said.
While addressing the needs of the Sixth Circuit and other areas is an immediate concern, postponing statewide changes until 2030 makes sense because all judges and Commonwealth’s Attorneys will be up for election that year, Minton said. Commonwealth’s Attorneys would be affected by changes in the trial court circuits.
The long-term goal of redistricting, Minton said, is the expansion of Family Courts across the state. A constitutional amendment established Family Courts in Kentucky in 2002.
“Yet, since the amendment, we have not been successful in making it available to all the counties,” Minton said. “That are 44 counties that do not have that.”
Minton said he would advocate for lawmakers to take up judicial circuit redistricting in the coming legislative session. Lawmakers will also have to craft a new state budget and take up redistricting House and Senate districts during the session.
“That’s a pretty heavy lift,” Minton said.
James Mayse, 270-691-7303, firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @JamesMayse