KY Senate proposes to force judicial redistricting

Mary Potter

FRANKFORT - The state Senate passed a proposed constitutional amendment today that would bring the most significant change to the state judiciary since 1976 reforms created a unified state court system that was a model for the nation.

Known as Senate Bill 8, the constitutional amendment passed by a 26-12 vote. It would ensure judges are assigned to courthouses with the highest volume of cases in the most populous area, said sponsor Sen. John Schickel, R-Union, who has introduced similar measures during the prior two sessions.

Sen. Schickel said Kentucky's judiciary system has not been redistricted for four decades.

Kentucky has sixty judicial districts. Some are spread over several counties, like the First Judicial District of the Mississippi River Counties. From Fulton County's courthouse in the south to Ballard County's courthouse in the north is sixty miles of two lane highway. One circuit judge serves four county courthouses. There are two district judges for the four counties. The population of the four counties is roughly the same as neighboring Graves County which has one circuit judge and one district judge. Neither of those have to travel a circuit.

Other circuits in rural areas, like Eastern Kentucky face distance, population and docket pressures. Hollowing out of populations does not necessarily mean less crime.

Sen. Brandon Smith, R-Hazard, spoke out against the measure. He said it would be harmful to Eastern Kentucky. "What I am seeing at home frightens me," he said. "We are seeing population leave, but the crime isn't going with it. We have seen areas that have a greater population than ours that have less crime."

Schickel responded by emphasizing that SB 8 would require the Kentucky Supreme Court to conduct judicial redistricting - based on population and caseloads.

Kentucky's Supreme Court has been looking at docket pressures for the past year or so - doing what a constitutional amendment would do. The judicial budget will need to ask for more money for more judges as some senators said was needed will be a forlorn hope in this tight budget session.

The bill now goes to the state House of Representatives for consideration.