Two Whitesburg attorneys have expressed their interest in replacing Sam Wright as Letcher Circuit Judge.
The two are James W. Craft II and Darrell Hall. Below is a look at the paths each would have to take to be appointed to a shortened term on the bench early next year, and then to win an election to serve the remainder of Wright’s term of office next November.
Before former Kentucky Gov. Steven L. Beshear left office, he appointed four Letcher County residents to serve on a Judicial Nominating Commission charged with selecting three local attorneys qualified to serve as Letcher circuit judge. However, the terms for two of those commission members expire January 1, 2016.
Katie Shepherd, chief of staff and legal counsel for the Office of Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr., said it is unlikely that the Judicial Nominating Commission will be able to collect and review questionnaires, interview interested attorneys and make recommendations to newlyelected Governor Matt Bevin by New Year’s Eve.
Bevin, who was sworn into office December 8, has not yet named a director of the Office of Boards and Commissions. Shepherd doesn’t know if Bevin will reappoint the two members whom Beshear appointed to fill existing terms that expire in a few weeks or if Bevin will appoint different applicants.
By executive order on December 3, Sherry Lynn Wright of Burdine was appointed to the Judicial Nominating Commission, replacing Linda J. Bailey of Jenkins. Kernel E. Sexton, of 242 Vates Branch, Whitesburg, was appointed to replace G.C. Kincer, of Jenkins. Both of these terms expire January 1, 2016.
Beshear also appointed Christopher D. Bates, of 132 Whitco Loop, Whitesburg, to replace Tina C. Whitaker. Kevin Hugh Eldridge, of 144 Kale Hollow, Whitesburg was appointed to replace Bennett Combs of Whitesburg. Terms for Bates and Eldridge expire January 1, 2018.
Four citizen members will serve on the Judicial Nominating Commission with two local attorneys and Minton himself. The two attorney members, Jimmy Craft and Gene Smallwood, were elected by local members of the Kentucky Bar Association. Minton serves as the chair of the commission.
The commission will review questionnaires and interview all applicants before recommending three names to Bevin. Once given the list of nominees, the governor has 60 days to appoint a circuit judge or the chief justice will appoint a judge from the list of recommendations.
The appointed circuit judge will serve that office until an election is held in November, Shepherd said.
Former Letcher Circuit Judge Sam Wright won the 7th District Supreme Court seat by defeating Court of Appeals Judge Janet Stumbo on November 3. Minton swore in Wright, who served as Letcher circuit judge for more than 20 years, as Supreme Court justice on November 23 in front of the Letcher County Courthouse.
The Letcher Circuit judge’s has been officially vacant since. Shepherd is waiting to hear from the governor’s office about the expiration dates of the Judicial Nominating Commission before sending a notice of the vacancy to all local attorneys. Attorneys may then nominate themselves or recommend another attorney to fill the vacancy created by Wright.
Shepherd said if only one or two attorneys express interest in the circuit judge position, the commission will be asked to submit the names of at least one or two other lawyers in the circuit, even if those lawyers haven’t applied for the position.
“We have interpreted the Constitution and the Supreme Court rules to require a Judicial Nominating Commission to submit three names to the Governor,” said Shepherd.
If that is the case, said Shepherd, Bevin will be notified that one or more nominees did not apply for the position and will not accept the position if offered.