Governor Bevin, Judge Shepherd, and self-handicapping

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The ongoing lawsuit over the state’s pension reform bill has seen Governor Matt Bevin attack and malign those opposing him. While the Governor locking horns with Attorney General Andy Beshear is nothing new, Bevin has spent a significant amount of time lately attacking Franklin County Circuit Court Judge Phillip Shepherd.

In recent months, Judge Shepherd has denied a request by the Governor to disqualify Beshear from the case. Shepherd also denied a separate request by Bevin to depose representatives of the AG’s office.

In response, Governor Bevin called Judge Shepherd an “incompetent hack” after previously calling him a “political hack.” Bevin’s lawyers asked Kentucky Supreme Court Justice John Minton to remove Shepherd from the case, citing a potential conflict of interest regarding Shepherd’s own pension. The request was denied.

It should be noted that the conflict of interest argument could be applied to all seven state Supreme Court justices, as they are all in the same pension system. Potentially disqualifying an entire court from ruling on your actions is quite a brash move, even by Bevin’s standards.

Self-Handicapping

We’ve all learned at this point that the Governor is not afraid to resort to name calling against those with whom he disagrees. Still, personally attacking the judge in your case doesn’t seem like the smartest move. So why is he doing it?

He could simply be angry that people are opposing him and be lashing out as small, petty people do. He could just be trying to make headlines for a run at a different office. He could be taking a page out of the President’s playbook by going after judges.

I suspect another motivation may come into play as well. By insulting the judge, Bevin is giving himself an excuse for potentially losing a difficult case. This is an example of an idea called self-handicapping, a strategy in which a person intentionally makes a task harder to lessen the amount of blame they receive if they fail.

There is no indication that any personal or political biases would come into play in any court decision on the case. But by leveling these criticisms, the Governor has created a claim of bias on the part of Judge Shepherd. Any ruling against Bevin at this point would allow him and the 32% of Kentuckians that still support him to say the case was lost because the judge was against him. The Governor has taken an impartial judge and cast a cloud of bias over him.

If he loses the case, this self-handicapping strategy will save the Governor from having to admit that the actions surrounding pension reform were unconstitutional. As an added benefit, if Governor Bevin should win in court, self-handicapping will allow him to claim an even greater success (“The judge was against us and we stillwon!”).

Ruling Expected Soon

So will Bevin’s self-handicapping strategy be effective? We don’t yet know the outcome of the case, but as some of the provisions of the pension bill are set to take effect in July, the ruling should be handed down soon.

The outcome will affect more than just the pension bill, however.

  • It will affect how the General Assembly passes laws.
  • It will affect the level of openness that citizens expect from their leaders.
  • And it will affect just how much people are willing to accept attacks on the judicial branch.

Regardless of the outcome, we can expect the Governor’s verbal tantrums to continue. And regardless of the outcome, we can be sure that the Governor will not take any of the blame on himself.

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Related Stories from Forward Kentucky

Beshear survives governor’s effort to have him removed from pension suit

Matt Bevin rips judge involved in pension case as ‘incompetent hack’

Neal Turpin
Dr. Neal Turpin is a recent PhD graduate of the University of Louisville’s School of Urban and Public Affairs, where he focused on public policy and participation, democratic structures, and efficiency. He enjoys spending time with his wife, Sara, working out at the Southeast YMCA, where the two of them met, and teaching Sunday school at Buechel Park Baptist Church. Neal also has an appreciation for trivia, movie scores, and the Muppets.