FRANKFORT – The state Senate passed a proposed constitutional amendment Thursday 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.
“This year we decided to do it in a form of a constitutional amendment,” Schickel said. “The reason we decided to do it in the form of a constitutional amendment is because of the importance of this issue. This issue goes to the very governance of the Commonwealth of Kentucky and the relationship between the three co-equal branches of government.”
He said Kentucky’s judiciary system has not been redistricted for four decades.
“Think about if we had not redistrict our senate seats … in over forty years and how inequitable that would be,” Schickel said, a former law enforcement officer. “But that is exactly what is going on right now in our judicial branch.”
Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville, said that has caused backlogs of cases in growing urban areas that potentially deny citizens speedy and equal justice – something enshrined in both the U.S. and Kentucky constitutions.
“What this asks for is to assign a fair caseload,” he said. “How can you be oppose to that? It is just an odd situation that in some areas of this state you have to wait in line too long to get what is called a speedy trial.”
Sen. Wil Schroder, R-Wilder, said the least busiest judicial circuits average 379 cases per year while the busiest circuits average 1,300 per year.
“That is quite a big discrepancy,” said Schroder, a former prosecutor in Campbell County. “I think we do need this constitutional amendment.”
Sen. Joe Bowen, R-Owensboro, said he represents a district that needs more judges. It is one of two in Kentucky that does not have a family court judge.
“We’re one of those being impacted by not having equal justice under the law because of the disparity in the workload of the judges across the Commonwealth of Kentucky,” he said. “I’m in total support of this measure.”
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.
Sen. Robin L. Webb, D-Grayson, praised Schickel for his work but said she wasn’t convinced SB 8 was the right thing for Kentucky.
“Caseload doesn’t always indicate the complexity of the litigation,” she said. “That is hard to quantify.”
The bill now goes to the state House of Representatives for consideration.