Retired justice criticizes Bevin’s attacks on court

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SCOKY Justice William Cunningham (photo via the Administrative Office of the Courts)
SCOKY Justice William Cunningham (photo via the Administrative Office of the Courts)

Kentucky’s court system is under attack from Gov. Matt Bevin and legislators intent on using the courts to further their political purposes, according to retired Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Bill Cunningham.

Tuesday afternoon, in his first public comments since his retirement from the court on Friday, Cunningham offered an impassioned defense of the state’s court system, and decried critical comments Bevin has made regarding the state’s judiciary.

Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Bill Cunningham (left) and Kentucky Court of Appeals Judge Christopher “Shea” Nickell socialize after Cunningham’s address to the Paducah Lions Club on Tuesday afternoon. Nickell has filed to run in November for the seat left open by Cunningham’s retirement. (photo by Dave Thompson, Paducah Sun)

In a 30-minute address at the weekly meeting of the Paducah Lions Club, Cunningham took particular issue with Bevin’s criticism of the state’s highest court as “activist judges” and his attack on Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd as an “incompetent hack.”

“This has been my bible for the last 12 years,” Cunningham said, showing a copy of the United States and Kentucky constitutions to the crowd, which contained dozens of local legal personnel in addition to regular Lions Club attendees.

Cunningham spoke about three recent decisions the Supreme Court made, regarding right-to-work, malpractice review panel and pension reform.

The court narrowly sided with the right-to-work law (Cunningham dissented), but unanimously struck down the review panel and pension reform laws.

Following the pension ruling, Bevin called the decision “an unprecedented power grab by activist judges.”

Bevin has also labeled Shepherd, who has ruled against him on occasion, an “incompetent hack.”

“After those decisions our governor attacked the court system. He’d already attacked one of the most highly respected and revered circuit judges,” Cunningham said.

Bevin’s comments put the court into a quandary of whether to respond to Bevin or to let the comments blow over. In the end, the court chose the latter option, though former Justice Dan Venters, who retired in January, wrote an op-ed that month also criticizing Bevin’s judiciary attacks.

But Bevin’s attacks go far beyond frustrated words, Cunningham said, and he cautioned against Bevin and legislative Republicans attempting to exercise increasing control over the judiciary.

“He wants all judges to be appointed. That’s part of the attack on the court system,” Cunningham said.

Click To Tweet wants all judges to be appointed. That’s part of the attack on the court system.’ – Retired SCOKY Justice William Cunningham” quote=”‘[Bevin] wants all judges to be appointed. That’s part of the attack on the court system.’ – Retired SCOKY Justice William Cunningham” theme=”style3″]

He also referenced bills attempting to require judges to register with a party affiliation and a bill that would allow the state to have Shepherd’s court recused and another judge appointed at random.

“You don’t get to pick your judges, but under Senate Bill 1, the state does,” he said, calling an independent judicial branch a necessary aspect of a free society that stands in the way of dictators like Mussolini and Hitler.

“When our court system becomes a pawn for the executive branch or the legislative branch, that’s the way democracies fall. That’s the way tyrants rise,” he said.

'When our court system becomes a pawn for the executive branch or the legislative branch, that's the way democracies fall. That's the way tyrants rise.' – Justice William CunninghamClick To Tweet

After his address, Cunningham said during his time on the court he and the other six justices served as a panel whose “only commitment was to get it right and to do justice.”

“I’ve never seen any activist judges,” Cunningham said. “I’ve seen, on a regular basis, justices regularly get passionate, angry, argue intensely for total strangers.”

He said often justices have to put aside their personal emotion regarding an issue, and judge solely based on the constitutions of the state and the country.

“They’re not there to make any political decisions, and they’re not there to make decisions free of criticism,” he said.

Bevin will make an appointment to fill Cunningham’s seat in the coming months, and an election will be held in November. The winner of that election will serve out Cunningham’s term, which ends in 2022, and then the seat will come up for election for a full eight-year term.

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Written by Dave Thompson. Cross-posted from the
Paducah Sun via the Kentucky Press News Service.