Rigging the justices

Published:

The Kentucky Enquirer, Fort Mitchell

A 4-2 majority on the Kentucky Supreme Court needed only one sentence to reject Gov. Ernie Fletchers attempt to appoint another substitute justice to rule on his own patronage scandal case.

It wasnt just a victory for Attorney General Greg Stumbo, who asked the court to stop the appointment. The ruling helps shore up public trust in state government as the case goes to oral arguments Tuesday.

Fletcher has repeatedly missed opportunities to repair self-inflicted political damage throughout his efforts to stop the grand jury from indicting his aides and filing a final report. His tin ear to public sentiment has repeatedly landed him on his ear. The state constitution gives the governor power to appoint substitute justices if as many as two justices decline or are unable to sit in the trial of any cause. The framers did not anticipate that a governor might then get to name who will judge a case that could make or break his own political future.

After Chief Justice Joseph Lambert and Justice John Roach withdrew from the case (Roach was Fletchers general counsel), the governor could have created an impartial panel to nominate substitute justices. Instead he named two who contributed to his political campaigns. Circuit Judge Jeffrey T. Burdette of Mount Vernon had the grace also to withdraw. He did so last week to eliminate any perception of partiality, ensure the integrity of the judiciary, and prevent any taint whatsoever upon the ultimate decision of the Supreme Court of Kentucky. Lexington attorney Ronald L. Green, whose law firm reportedly holds two state legal services contracts, did not withdraw.

So now there was only one vacancy. When Fletcher tried to fill it, Stumbo objected, since the constitution gives a governor power to appoint only in cases of two or more vacancies.

The courts have been rocked by such egregious abuses as those seen in the Judge Joseph Jay Bamberger fen-phen diet pill case. If anything, all sides in the hiring scandal case starting with Fletcher ought to be doubly fanatical about keeping the courts free of even the appearance of improper political influence, since thats what the case itself is about.

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