Herald Leader article on Supreme Court race in Bluegrass

Lexington Herald Leader article on supreme court race in Bluegrass. 

At times, the race for Central Kentucky’s seat on the Supreme Court has been a scholarly discussion on legal issues.

At other times, the ostensibly non-partisan contest has all the name-calling and accusations that have come to define partisan elections.

At candidate forums, Justice John Roach gushes about his love of the law, his relationship with other justices and his judicial philosophy, which he describes as “textualism framed by original understanding.” But the campaign of his opponent, Judge Mary Noble, has reminded reporters that he was a political operative for failed Lexington mayoral candidate Scott Crosbie and Gov. Ernie Fletcher.

Noble has touted her experience of 14 years on the Fayette Circuit Court and three years as a domestic relations commissioner, where she heard divorce and adoption cases. She considers her role in founding the Fayette Drug Court program her greatest achievement.

But Roach and several state prosecutors have pointed to rulings where they say Noble misapplied the law in favor of defendants.

Justice Roach

Roach, 39, who graduated in the top five of his class at the University of Kentucky law school in 1992, is prone to long, complicated answers to questions.

Shannon Ragland, who went to law school with Roach and now edits Kentucky Trial Court Review, says he is the brightest mind among the Supreme Court justices.

“He is probably running circles around them intellectually,” Ragland said.

Noble, 57, a former English teacher, is more plain-spoken and occasionally employs a sharp wit.

At a candidate forum, she referred to a Roach ad that said the justice wears a robe to work. “I usually wait to get to work before I put mine on,” Noble quipped.

Roach has been on the high court only 15 months, while Noble has been on the Circuit Court since 1992. Roach says, however, that as an attorney he argued twice before the Supreme Court, while Noble never did.

Roach, a former clerk for a U.S. Court of Appeals judge, has practiced law in Washington D.C. and Lexington. He handled corporate transactions and represented plaintiffs in civil rights and employment discrimination cases.

But Roach is better known for having managed Crosbie’s 2002 mayoral campaign and Fletcher’s congressional re-election effort in 2000, as well as working for the gubernatorial campaign in 2003.

Before being named to the Supreme Court in June 2005, Roach served as the Republican governor’s chief legal adviser. Two former officials have said they had warned Roach about potentially improper hirings in the Transportation Cabinet.

On a campaign door hanger, Noble hinted at the merit hiring scandal that mired Fletcher’s administration. The hangers were recently placed on homes in Frankfort, which has a high percentage of state workers.

“Fletcher appointed his inexperienced General Counsel, John Roach to the Supreme Court of Kentucky,” the hanger states. “Passing over Judge Mary Noble … WHY? Because Judge Noble’s record stands up for all Kentuckians, based on MERIT; not who their friends are.”

Roach said the Supreme Court is not divided on political lines but rather on judicial philosophy.

He noted that several prominent Democrats, such as Attorney General Greg Stumbo, are supporting him. The Commonwealth’s Attorneys Association and state Fraternal Order of Police have both endorsed Roach.

Roach has a pending legal malpractice lawsuit filed in 2001 in Pikeville. Jamie Hamilton claims that Roach botched a legal malpractice case for his deceased grandfather, John Hamilton. He also says Roach failed to name a legal expert and dismissed part of the case without consulting the family. Roach said the lawsuit is without merit.

Judge Noble

Noble has had several careers: high school English teacher, guidance counselor, college psychology instructor, lawyer and judge.

As a lawyer, Noble represented school boards, plaintiffs and criminal defendants.

Noble said she helped found Lexington’s drug court program in 1996. Rather than locking addicts in jail, the program requires drug users to attend treatment, stay drug-free, and hold jobs or take classes. Unlike typical probation, drug users must regularly meet with a judge to assess their progress.

Noble’s inspiration for drug courts came after a large drug bust in 1995. As she arraigned drug addicts, Noble was struck by how many users were poor and likely to use drugs again, she said. She began to research the issue and learned about drug court programs in California and Florida.

“I really do believe that God puts you in the right place and the right time to do things,” she said.

The program has been praised by researchers, state officials and some prosecutors for helping addicts overcome their addiction and stay out of jail — ultimately saving taxpayers money, they say. But it has not gone without criticism.

Fayette Commonwealth’s Attorney Ray Larson, a Roach supporter, says the program does a poor job of screening potential participants.

“It was originally intended for people who were basically drug addicts,” Larson said. “Now it’s not uncommon for offenders with violent and lengthy records to be placed in the program. We’re concerned about that.”

But Larson says the program has been “very, very helpful for 10 to 20 percent in it.”

Noble, four judges and a Supreme Court justice were privately admonished by the Supreme Court because of a Lexington expense account for judges, according to Noble’s application to the judicial nominating commission. Some judges had used the fund for office expenses, meals, baseball tickets and other items. Noble drew on the account to buy employees gifts.

The judge acknowledged that the $1,800 annual fund, a holdover from when city and county governments ran the courts, had been used improperly. It was abolished after news reports in 1999.

Roach says some of Noble’s rulings have incorrectly favored defendants over prosecutors. With Noble, her reversals “tend to be where a criminal defendant has been given more than they were ever required to get under the law,” he said. Noble’s campaign manager dismissed any claims that she is soft on crime.

“John Roach has not put one criminal in jail while Judge Noble has put thousands of criminals in jail,” campaign manager Dea Riley said.

Gordon Shaw, commonwealth’s attorney for Bourbon, Scott and Woodford counties, said that Noble’s critics are unfairly cherry-picking rulings she has made over a long career. Every case has its nuances and specifics, Shaw said, making it impossible to say a handful of rulings is representative of a judge’s philosophy.

“If it is pulled out of context, it can look like an idiotic view,” said Shaw, a Noble supporter. “I don’t think anybody else would like to be held to that same standard.”

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