Kentucky Court of Justice
Fairness commission calls for leaders to appoint qualified minorities to Kentucky judgeships
Jefferson County Commission on Racial Fairness Resolution
Racial Fairness Commission Resolution
FRANKFORT, Ky. -- The Jefferson County Commission on Racial Fairness has unanimously passed a resolution that calls for the Judicial Nominating Commission, Chief Justice of Kentucky John D. Minton Jr. and Gov. Steve Beshear to seek out, nominate and appoint qualified African-Americans and other minorities to the Kentucky judiciary.
“The commission calls for a judiciary that represents the racial diversity of our population,” the resolution says in part.
The resolution covers all Kentucky courts. It does not endorse or support a particular candidate for judicial office or call for a racial quota.
The commission voted for the resolution Jan. 23 after discussing the racial composition of the Jefferson County judiciary at its December and January meetings. Jefferson County, where approximately 20 percent of residents are African-American, has no elected African-American judges among its 40 judges in Circuit, District and Family Court.
The racial makeup of the Jefferson County judiciary is “an essential component of the larger question of whether the courtroom environment alienates or detrimentally impacts African-Americans and other racial minorities,” according to the resolution.
District Court Judges Janice R. Martin and Joan A. “Toni” Stringer, the only African-American trial court judges in Jefferson County, retired in January to join the Senior Judges Program. Chief Justice Minton has appointed Judges Martin and Stringer to continue in their Jefferson County District Court posts as senior judges until judges are appointed to fill the vacancies created by their retirements.
“The Commission on Racial Fairness believes that the Kentucky Court of Justice recognizes the importance of a judiciary that is statistically representative of all racial groups within the commonwealth,” the resolution reads. “Mistrust of public institutions is fostered by stark statistical disparities with regard to the representation of African-Americans and other minorities in public offices and positions of authority, including the judiciary.”
This resolution is an important and timely call for action in light of the racial composition of the trial bench in Jefferson County, the number of judicial vacancies to be filled statewide and the recent celebration of Black History Month, said Court of Appeals Judge Denise G. Clayton, who chairs the fairness commission.
There are 27 judicial vacancies statewide. Twenty-three circuit and district judges recently retired to join the Senior Judges Program before it expired by operation of law on Jan. 31, 2009, and four circuit and district judgeships are vacant due to elections. The judgeships will be filled later this year through the Judicial Nominating Commission process.
The Jefferson County Commission on Racial Fairness was appointed in 2001 to examine study claims of racial bias in Jefferson Circuit Court. The commission is composed of a diverse group of judges, lawyers, civil rights proponents and other leaders in the African-American community. In its nearly eight years of work, the commission has found evidence of disparities or systemic bias regarding bail determinations, sentencing and jury selection. Some of the measures it has recommended to address the problems have been implemented through immediate policy changes and training initiatives, while others are the subject of pending or proposed legislation.
Judicial Nominating Commission
The Judicial Nominating Commission helps fill judicial vacancies by appointment when a vacancy occurs outside of the election cycle. Members of the JNC meet to select three qualified individuals and submit their names to the governor for consideration. The governor must appoint a judge within 60 days of receiving the list of nominees or the appointment is made by the chief justice from the list of nominees.
When a judicial vacancy occurs, the executive secretary of the JNC notifies the attorneys and the public in the affected circuit or district that a vacancy exists. Attorneys can recommend someone or nominate themselves. Interested attorneys must complete a questionnaire and return it to the executive secretary of the JNC at the Administrative Office of the Courts. The chief justice then meets with the JNC to choose the three nominees and submits those names to the governor in alphabetical order.
The Judicial Branch issues a news release announcing the three nominees once their credentials are sent to the governor for review. When the governor appoints the replacement, his or her office makes the announcement. The completed questionnaires and the number of applicants and their names are not released.
Composition of the Judicial Nominating Commissions
There are currently 61 Judicial Nominating Commissions in Kentucky, one for the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, one for each judicial circuit and one for each judicial district. If the circuit and district have the same boundaries, then one commission serves both.
The seven members of the nominating commission are the chief justice (who serves as chairman), two attorneys elected by the attorneys in the jurisdiction of the vacancy and four non-attorney Kentucky citizens who are appointed by the governor. The four non-attorneys must equally represent the two major political parties, so two must be Democrats and two must be Republicans. A JNC member must be a resident of the circuit or district he or she represents and may not hold any other public office or office in a political party or organization.
JNC members serve four-year terms. Members are not compensated for their services, but are reimbursed for expenses for the days they perform their duties. The Administrative Office of the Courts provides administrative support for and maintains the records of the nominating commissions.
Senior Judges Program
The 2000 General Assembly created the Senior Judges Program, which allows judicial vacancies to be filled in a timely manner by retired judges who serve 600 days over five years. Senior judges receive no extra pay and are compensated through an enhanced retirement benefit. Under the guidelines, sitting judges are called upon to handle routine situations, such as disqualifications, recusals, vacations and short illnesses, while senior judges are reserved for vacancies due to death or retirement and extraordinary circumstances leading to unusually congested dockets. There are currently 69 senior judges.