REDISTRICTING 2.0 SHOULD INCLUDE KENTUCKY’S TRIAL COURTS – Jason Nemes

Article submitted by Hon. Jason Nemes:

With the recent Kentucky Supreme Court decision declaring the redistricting package for the state legislature unconstitutional, the General Assembly must redistrict the state during the 2013 session to comply with federal equal protection law and Section 33 of the Constitution of Kentucky. And, in addition to redrawing the legislative lines, it appears that there is interest, once again, to redraw the districts that apply to Supreme Court justices and Court of Appeals judges. (Though the appellate court plan was not challenged, it was voided along with the state legislative plan because it was included in the same bill, which contained a non-severability clause.)

However, redistricting should not stop there. While it is true that federal one-person, one-vote principles do not apply to the judiciary (judges don’t “represent” anyone), judicial and governmental efficiency require significant attention to judicial circuits, which, in many cases, are grossly out of proportion when considering caseloads and population shifts. Redistricting circuit courts would more effectively employ the state’s limited resources and enable expansion of family courts to the rest of the state, among many other benefits.

The Court of Justice is in constant need of additional resources, but some of this is because it is operating in an anachronistic system. The current circuit plan, with its wildly divergent caseloads and populations, is a major impediment to judicial efficiency, and it annually wastes millions of taxpayer dollars. (The antiquated filing system is the other major overhaul necessary to improve Kentucky’s courts. A modern electronic filing system would bring the system into the 21st century while enabling the courts to charge for access to its electronic records and reduce circuit-clerk-staffing needs, which are chronically understaffed in many counties. Of course, this is to say nothing of the benefits such a system would provide the public and the bar.)

The case for re-circuiting is incontrovertible. We have 95 non-family circuit judges across the state, with an average caseload of 1,209 filings per year. However, there are circuits in this state with nearly double the average caseload, and those areas (e.g., Jessamine, Bullitt, and northern Kentucky) are experiencing explosive growth. On the other end of the spectrum, there are circuits with half the average caseload, and those areas are experiencing drastic population decreases (e.g., Floyd, Knott/Magoffin, and far western Kentucky). For example, Floyd County is its own circuit, has three circuit judges (one is a family court judge), lost 7 percent of its population over the past 10 years, and would still be well below the average caseload if it lost one of its circuit judges.

With regard to population, Harlan (29, 278), Perry (28,712), Letcher (24,519), and Bell (28,691)—contiguous counties—is each its own circuit, with a total of four circuit judges. This is two more than their aggregate population would warrant. One suggestion is to combine Bell, Harlan and Letcher counties, keep their three circuit judges, but make one of them a family court judge. Then combine Perry County with Magoffin and Knott, keep their combined two circuit judges and make one of them a family court judge. Currently a family court judge elected in Floyd County covers family court cases in Magoffin and Knott. This judge could be discontinued, since Floyd County currently has about 1.5 more judges than its caseload and population warrants. This proposal would reduce one circuit judge that could be assigned to another area of the state that needs more judges. It would also expand family court to an area badly in need of the focused services provided by these courts.

Fortunately, there is no better time than the 2013 session to address the judicial circuits. Every trial judge in the state will be on the ballot in 2014, as the circuit judges’ eight-year terms and the district judges’ four-year terms come to an end. And to properly address this complex issue, months of study and the interests of numerous constituencies need to be considered. For instance, re-circuiting will affect commonwealth’s attorney, whose districts are the same as the judicial circuits. But commonwealth’s attorneys are on a six-year election cycle as opposed to the eight-year cycle for the circuit judges. Another issue that requires considerable study is the expansion of family courts. But without re-circuiting, it will be effectively impossible to expand family courts to the approximately 25 percent of the population that currently do not have them.

With that in mind, the Kentucky Supreme Court should certify the necessity to “reduce, increase or rearrange” the judicial circuits pursuant to Section 112(2) of the Constitution, and then the Chief Justice and the leaders of the House and Senate should appoint a committee to make recommendations to re-circuit the state. This committee could recommend a few options to re-circuit the Commonwealth, including one limited to addressing the most glaring inefficiencies, such as the one identified above. The result could be either a reduction in the total amount of judges, or, more likely, a better reallocation of the judges currently in existence.

Re-circuiting the Commonwealth’s trial courts is a major undertaking, and it should not be done with haste. However, re-circuiting is long overdue and, because of the upcoming 2014 elections, there is no better time than the 2013 legislative session to get it done.

Caseload statistics may be found at this link: http://courts.ky.gov/NR/rdonlyres/6BC06A12-9779-4710-B578-01E886BBB12A/0/ins015_ci_judge_ranking_bycircuit.pdf

Admittedly, I have focused on southeastern Kentucky, which has the most glaring disparities. But similar problems exist in other places.

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