LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The races for state legislature, mayor’s office, Congress, and the U.S. Senate are grabbing the headlines, but when Kentucky voters go to the polls on Tuesday, they’ll be confronted with a long list of judicial elections too.

What You Need To Know

  • Judicial primaries take place on Tuesday in Kentucky

  • In races with more than two candidates, primaries are held and the top two vote-getters move on the to the general election

  • Judicial elections in Kentucky are non-partisan

  • Several groups put out surveys and endorsement to help voters decide whom to vote for

In Louisville, all voters, regardless of party registration, will have the chance to vote in nine judicial elections. In Lexington, they’ll vote on two. Find your sample ballot here to see which judicial races will be on your ballot.

Here’s what you need to know about the judicial elections before Election Day:

How do judicial elections work?

Kentucky is one of a handful of states that elect judges in non-partisan elections. Where there are three or more people running for a specific judgeship, a primary election is held and the top two vote-getters advance to the general election. 

Because the elections are non-partisan, any registered voter can vote in a judicial primary. That’s in contrast to partisan primaries — such as those for state and federal legislators — which require voters to be registered members of a certain party. 

What are the different judges?

Your ballot this year may have elections for Circuit Court judges, District Court judges, family court judges, Court of Appeals judges, or Supreme Court judges. Each of these judges handles different cases.

District Court judges handle misdemeanors, traffic offenses, and civil claims involving $500 and less. 

Circuit Court judges deal with more severe cases, including felonies, capital offenses, and civil claims involving more than $5,000. They hear appeals from cases originating in District Court.

Family Court judges focus on family and children related issues, including divorce, child custody, adoption and domestic violence.

The Court of Appeals is the first venue for appeals of cases initially tried in Circuit Court. After such a trial, the losing party may ask the Court of Appeals to evaluate the court’s decision and decide if it was correct.

The Supreme Court of Kentucky provides the final venue of appeal and the final judgment on Kentucky law. 

What do the circuit, district and division numbers mean?

Not a lot, as far as voters are concerned.

The state is split up into districts for electing judges. Judges running for Supreme Court and Court of Appeals run in one of seven districts.

For the Circuit Court, the state is divided into 57 districts. Many span the borders of multiple counties, but the largest counties in the state have their own. Jefferson County is the 30th Circuit, Fayette County is the 22nd Circuit, Warren County is the 8th Circuit and Campbell County is the 17th Circuit. At the District Court level, there are 60 districts

Many circuits and districts are further divided into divisions, but those do not have geographical boundaries. 

“The number of divisions within each circuit/district is based on the number of judges allocated to that circuit/district,” said Leigh Anne Hiatt, spokesperson for the Administrative Office of the Courts.

How do you know who to vote for?

The non-partisan nature of judicial elections removes one of the easiest shortcuts for choosing a candidate. And since judges don’t campaign on political uses such as health care, education, and the economy, it can be hard to know who to vote for. 

Citizens for Better Judges (CBJ) has spent decades trying to assist local voters in that process by issuing endorsements in contested judicial elections. The group puts candidates through a rigorous interview process, evaluating them on factors such as legal knowledge, court management skills, and judicial temperament. The CBJ also discusses candidates with practicing attorneys and community leaders, and then it issues its endorsements. 

“That process has served us well for the past 39 years and it is the reason why CBJ’s endorsements are coveted by the candidates and respected in the legal community and by the public at-large,” said Maggie Keane, Chair of CBJ. 

The CBJ’s list of endorsements is available on its website.

The ACLU of Kentucky has also released a judicial election guide with answers from candidates to questions such as, “Do you believe police misconduct in our criminal justice system needs addressing?” and “What role do judges play in helping to relieve the overpopulation in Kentucky’s jails?”

Further information is available from the Louisville Bar Association, which surveyed 533 members in Jefferson County about the judicial elections. The attorneys were asked to rate judicial candidates in each race as highly qualified, qualified, or unqualified. The results of that survey can be found here.