Kentucky's Democratic governor filed suit Thursday seeking to block a new state law that gives Republican officials the power to appoint a majority of members to a key ethics commission.
Gov. Andy Beshear's legal challenge warns that the reconstituted membership on the state Executive Branch Ethics Commission could launch politically based, meritless investigations. The lawsuit, filed in Jefferson County Circuit Court in Louisville, claims the measure violates Kentucky's constitution.
The legal fight comes a year before Beshear will be on the statewide ballot in seeking a second term in a state increasingly dominated by Republicans. It's the latest in a series of court confrontations over Republican-backed laws that would weaken the Democratic governor's executive authority.
Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron on Thursday called the new ethics commission-related law a “good-government measure” and said it passes constitutional muster. Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams said it prevents a governor from “stacking the ethics commission with his cronies.”
In their recently ended session, GOP lawmakers passed the measure — over Beshear's veto — to revamp the ethics commission's membership. The measure, House Bill 334, gave Republican statewide officeholders the authority to select five of the newly expanded commission's seven members. The governor would appoint two members. Previously, the governor appointed all five members.
Beshear's suit claims that the governor would become “subservient” to the new commission.
“Under HB334, the commission could launch politically motivated investigations without any merit, and make findings and impose civil penalties in those matters, and the governor has no power to remedy such conduct and ensure the law is faithfully executed,” the suit said.
Under the measure, five statewide officeholders — currently all Republicans — each would make one appointment to the ethics commission. Those officials are the attorney general, secretary of state, state treasurer, state auditor and agriculture commissioner.
“By stripping the governor of his executive authority to appoint the majority of the members of the commission and giving it to officers who are not the chief magistrate, HB334 prevents the governor from faithfully executing the laws” as prescribed by the state constitution, the suit said.
Beshear’s lawsuit noted that he issued an executive order giving others a role in selecting commission members. Under the order, two of his appointments were made from a list of nominees provided by the attorney general and state auditor, the suit said.
Republican officials quickly defended the measure being challenged by the governor.
“This bill is a good-government measure that keeps partisan politics out of the Executive Branch Ethics Commission,” Cameron said in a statement. “And it is constitutional. I’m disappointed that the governor sued to undermine the independence of this important government agency.”
Adams praised the measure for allocating appointments among statewide constitutional officers.
“The governor is at his best on the occasions when he comes out of his partisan bunker, recognizes we are a two-party state and treats others with respect,” Adams said in a statement.
The suit seeks a temporary and permanent injunction blocking the new law's enforcement. It requests an expedited review, since the measure is set to take effect in mid-July. At that time, terms of the commission's current members will expire, and the new members will begin their terms.
Beshear’s suit also challenges the bill’s removal of commission member David Karem before his term expires. Karem, a former longtime Democratic lawmaker, joined Beshear as a plaintiff in the suit.