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Op-Ed: Raise the Bar for District Courts by Supporting Constitutional Amendment 2

The following op-ed is written by Campbell County District Judge Karen Thomas

On November 3, voters will have an opportunity to raise the bar on Kentucky’s judiciary by requiring candidates for district court judge to have more experience. Surprisingly, candidates for district court judge must only have a law license for two years. Constitutional Amendment 2 raises that requirement to eight years, commensurate with every other level of Kentucky’s unified court system. 

At a time when district judges face more and more responsibility and handle important issues like domestic violence, mental illness, and addiction, Constitutional Amendment 2 will benefit Kentuckians by “raising the bar” for candidates to the district court bench. Our district judges must be prepared to handle a broad range of criminal and civil proceedings, including matters involving our most vulnerable citizens in juvenile, guardianship and mental health cases.

Kentucky’s 115 district court judges preside over more than 700,000 new cases each year and despite being a court of limited jurisdiction, district court judges are not limited in the scope of their work or the reach of their efforts to help Kentuckians. District court judges preside over cases involving the following: city and county ordinances; juvenile offenses (public and status); misdemeanors; preliminary felony proceedings; violations; traffic offenses; probate matters; small claims complaints involving amounts of $2,500 or less; civil matters involving amounts of $5,000 or less; involuntary commitments; guardianship petitions; petitions for emergency protective orders and interpersonal protective orders; petitions for dependency, abuse and neglect; actions seeking involuntary inpatient treatment for substance use disorders (“Casey’s Law”); and actions seeking court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment for the seriously mentally ill (“Tim’s Law”). Many district court judges also volunteer their time to Kentucky’s specialty courts, including veterans treatment courts, mental health courts and drug courts. 

Without question, a candidate for any judicial office should be an experienced attorney. Both professional legal experience and life experience are necessary for one to be a capable jurist. Breadth of experience lends itself to a more thoughtful decision-making process for someone to choose to be a district court judge. The district court bench should not be viewed as a training ground but as a position one aspires to achieve. A more experienced bench benefits all Kentuckians and raising the licensure requirement will improve the public perception and confidence in the district Court judiciary.

Although numerous constitutional amendments were proposed during the 2020 legislative session, only House Bill 405, now “Constitutional Amendment 2” and Senate Bill 15, more widely known as “Marsy’s Law,” passed both chambers to earn submission to Kentucky voters on November 3.  House Bill 405 received overwhelming bipartisan support from both legislative chambers, passing the House of Representatives by a 76-7 margin and the Senate by a 25-7 margin. Senate Bill 15 will be listed first on the ballot as Constitutional Amendment 1, while House Bill 405 will be listed second as Constitutional Amendment 2. The entire text of each amendment must be presented to voters on the statewide ballot pursuant to a ruling by the Supreme Court of Kentucky in 2019. 

Constitutional Amendment 2 proposes to amend Sections 97 and 119 of the Constitution of Kentucky by extending the terms of commonwealth’s attorneys and district court judges to eight years for the purposes of aligning the elections of judges and prosecutors to enable recircuiting or redistricting. Currently, every circuit court judge, family court judge, court of appeals judge, and Supreme Court justice serves an eight-year term while district court judges serve four-year terms.

Commonwealth’s attorneys currently serve six-year terms. 

The legislature has engaged in the process to realign the trial courts over the last several years based on judicial workload studies conducted by the National Center for State Courts and the Supreme Court of Kentucky. The Constitution first requires the Supreme Court to certify any necessity for redistricting with the General Assembly, who must then agree, via legislation, with the proposed changes. 

It is not uncommon to have multiple-county circuits with a circuit court judge, with an eight-year term, and a commonwealth’s attorney, with a six-year term. To modify judicial circuits to meet the necessity of the various regions, the two positions must be selected at the same time. House Bill 405’s primary sponsor, Representative Jason Nemes (R-Louisville) testified in committee that the purpose of the Amendment was “not out of convenience, but necessity. To accommodate the need of the Supreme Court and the legislature, we need to marry the two terms to coincide, and that is with eight-year terms.”

The eight-year term for district court judges would take effect following the 2022 general election, while the eight-year term for commonwealth’s attorneys would not take effect until after the 2030 general election due to the current disparity in term lengths and the misaligned election cycles of the prosecutors and judges. 

You are more likely to come in contact with a district court judge than any other elected official. Experience matters. On November 3, Vote yes to raise the bar on Kentucky’s judiciary.

Visit www.raisethebarky.com for more information on Constitutional Amendment 2.

Respectfully submitted, 

Judge Karen A. Thomas

Campbell County District Court

Chief Regional Judge, Northern Region

On behalf of all Officers and Directors of the District Judges for a Better Commonwealth and the District Judges Association of Kentucky 

Photo: Judge Karen Thomas (via NKU)

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