Whitesburg KY

Amendment would affect judges and prosecutors

Voters in the November election in Kentucky will decide on two ballot questions that would affect how the courts in the state work, and potentially whether some counties get to keep their courts.

Ballot Question 1 is whether Marsy’s Law should be added to the Kentucky Constitution. Ballot Question 2 would extend the terms of district judges and some other court officials to eight years, and put all judicial branch races on the same ballot schedule.

Question 2 might have more long-reaching effects on more people because it not only lengthens the experience requirement for new district judges and extends the terms of prosecutors and district judges to eight years. It could also pave the way for the elimination of some judicial circuits, and some attorneys, who would not say so on the record, believe that is the intent.

Letcher Commonwealth’s Attorney Edison Banks said he is opposed to the amendment mainly because he doesn’t believe any officials should be entitled to eight years in office without being answerable to the public. Banks said in his position, a new prosecutor might spend two years cleaning up old cases from his or her predecessor, so four years would be two short. But, he said the current six-year term allows the successful candidate time to learn the job and act on his or her own for the last four years.

“If you give somebody eight years, if they’re a good judge or a good prosecutor, that’s fine,” he said, “but if they’re not, that’s a problem.”

On attorney, who asked not to be identified, said the move is intended consolidate judicial elections into the same year — 2030 — and then eliminate circuits and districts that have smaller caseloads before those elections come up. He believes the plan by the Republican House and Senate is to use money saved by eliminating those circuits and district to finance new judge positions in the heavily Republican areas in northern Kentucky.

Attorneys and other officials here said there have been rumblings for years about combining Letcher and Perry Circuits, though they say Letcher has plenty of cases without combining it with other counties. Letcher Circuit Judge James W. Craft II said he doesn’t believe this circuit would be eliminated.

“ Letcher County has enough to keep its own circuit,” he said. “The circuit court runs about 800 cases a year, which is an ideal number to maintain it.”

Circuit Clerk Mike Watts wasn’t so sure, noting that there were plenty of driver’s licenses issued here, but the state still created regional offices and moved the service out of the clerk’s office.

“We’ve got about as a big a caseload as any other county, but it’s all about northern Kentucky,” he said.

Letcher District Judge Kevin Mullins, who currently serves a four-year term, said he thinks the increased experience requirement is good — district judges are currently required to have only two years experience — and he has no problem with an eight-year term. But, he said, he doesn’t think circuits and districts should be eliminated to benefit one part of the state.

“I think there are certain places in the state that have experienced an explosion of population and explosion of substance abuse, and they do need more judges. But, they should not look to fill this need by cutting judges from other parts of the state that have experienced this same problem,” Mullins said.

Ballot Question 1 is also receiving opposition from some trial attorneys, who say it would fundamentally change the way the court system works. While they say it’s hard to argue with the concept that victims have rights, the law will have unintended consequences.

Marsy’s Law, also known as the Crime Victims’ Rights Amendment, says the rights of crime victims shall be protected “in a manner no less vigorous” than rights of the accused. About a third of U.S. residents live in states in which the language has been added to their Constitutions. The effort has been spearheaded and largely financed by billionaire Henry Nicholas, according to the online political encyclopedia Ballotpedia. Nicholas’s sister Marsy was murdered in 1983.

Will Collins, managing attorney of the Kentucky Public Defender’s Office in Hazard, called the law a measure for “full-employment of lawyers.”

“It will slow down the courts, it will hamper the process of justice,” Collins said.

Collins, a former prosecutor as well as a current public defender, said victims already have the right to confront the accused, and prosecutors are already required to consult with crime

He said while he’s not sure the law will give victims an actual standing in court to file motions or call witnesses, it will put more pressure on prosecutors to hammer defendants rather than seek true justice.

“Courts are not places of revenge, they’re places for justice, and this gives revenge legal standing,” he said.

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