FRANKFORT, Ky. — Kentucky's Supreme Court on Thursday struck down a new state law that allowed participants in constitutional challenges to get the cases switched to randomly selected counties. The court said the legislature's action on the assignment of court cases encroached on judicial authority.
The law, enacted this year over the governor's veto, allowed any participants to request changes of venue for civil cases challenging the constitutionality of laws, orders or regulations. It required the clerk of the state Supreme Court to choose another court through a random selection.
Such constitutional cases typically are heard in Franklin County Circuit Court in the capital city of Frankfort. For years, Republican officials have complained about a number of rulings from Franklin circuit judges in high-stakes cases dealing with constitutional issues.
The high court's ruling was a victory for Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who in his veto message denounced the measure as an “unconstitutional power grab” by the state's GOP-dominated legislature. Lawmakers overrode the governor's veto, sparking the legal fight that reached the state's highest court.
Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron's office defended the venue law, which passed as Senate Bill 126. Cameron is challenging Beshear in the Nov. 7 gubernatorial election — one of the nation's highest-profile campaigns this year.
Writing for the court's majority, Chief Justice Laurance B. VanMeter said the new law amounted to a violation of constitutional separation of powers.
The measure granted “unchecked power to a litigant to remove a judge from a case under the guise of a “transfer,” circumventing the established recusal process, the chief justice wrote.
“It operates to vest a certain class of litigants with the unfettered right to forum shop, without having to show any bias on the part of the presiding judge, or just cause for removal,” VanMeter said.
The measure also resulted in “divesting the circuit court of its inherent jurisdiction and authority to decide when and if a case should be transferred to another venue,” he said.
Responding to the ruling, Cameron's office insisted the legislature had acted within its authority.
“The legislature has always had broad authority to decide where lawsuits should be heard,” the attorney general's office said in a statement. "Today’s opinion backtracks on that established principle and diminishes the power of the people’s branch of government.”
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Robert Conley said the legislature has the constitutional authority to pass legislation “fixing venue and providing for changes of venue.”
“SB126 is new and it is different from what the judiciary is used to,” he wrote. “I deem it unwise, imprudent, inefficient and inexpedient. But I cannot say it is unconstitutional.”
In his March veto message, Beshear said the measure was aimed at one court. The intent, he said, was to “control Kentucky courts and block any civil action alleging a law is unconstitutional from being heard in one circuit court: the Franklin Circuit Court.”