Lawmakers vote to move cases out of Franklin Circuit Court

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky lawmakers gave final passage Wednesday to a bill that would curtail the statewide influence of a circuit court traditionally assigned high-profile cases involving state government.

The measure sent to Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear reflects a long-running goal of many Republican lawmakers to steer cases away from Franklin County Circuit Court. By bypassing that circuit, the bill would dramatically change the way lawsuits involving state government are handled.

Under the bill, cases dealing with the constitutionality of state law, executive orders or administrative regulations would be heard in the plaintiff's home county. Those cases now are traditionally tried in Franklin Circuit Court, in the state capital of Frankfort.

“Is it really fair that people should always have to come to the Franklin County circuit when it’s dealing with a constitutional question in their state?" Republican Sen. Wil Schroder said. "If anyone should have to travel to defend it, in my opinion, it should be the state (attorneys), not the individual, or not the business that has a problem.”

Such cases would remain in Franklin Circuit Court when the plaintiffs aren't Kentucky residents.

For years, former GOP Gov. Matt Bevin and other Republicans complained about rulings by Franklin circuit court judges in high-stakes cases dealing with constitutional issues.

But Republican Sen. Whitney Westerfield said Wednesday that eliminating the “super circuit” status of the Franklin Circuit court shouldn't be seen as a reflection on the current judges there. He also emphasized the logistical issues for plaintiffs in cases involving the state.

“It allows the plaintiffs to file an action where they are,” he said in promoting the bill. “Instead of traveling from the far corners of the commonwealth to Franklin Circuit Court to file an action, they can file it right where they are.”

In opposing the bill, Democratic Sen. Reggie Thomas said such legal cases belong in the circuit court in Frankfort since it's the seat of state government. The measure is the latest example of legislative overreach into another branch of government, he said.

“Once again what we’re seeing in this first half of the session is a situation where the legislature now wants to assert its authority and its power over other branches of government," Thomas said. "Last week it was the executive. This week it’s the judiciary.”

In the opening days of the session, Republican lawmakers passed bills to limit the governor’s emergency authority to impose COVID-19 restrictions.

The GOP has enough House and Senate members to override any gubernatorial vetoes.

The judicial bill originally called for creating panels of three circuit judges across Kentucky to hear cases involving state government. A Senate committee rewrote the bill after hearing objections from Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr.

In sending the measure to the governor, the House on Wednesday accepted the Senate changes to have the cases heard in the plaintiff's home county.

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The legislation is House Bill 3.