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Bill Straub: Here come the judges — and, thank the Constitution, they have important role in democracy

WASHINGTON – Gov. Matt “Yosemite Sam’’ Bevin appears to have a bit of a problem with the U.S. Constitution, at least that part that establishes the judiciary as one of the three equal branches of government.

St. Matt of New Hampshire, as we all know, doesn’t react well to being told no, something the courts, both state and federal, have been doing with some frequency of late. He has not, it’s fair to say, handled the setbacks in what any normal person would consider a mature manner.

The latest example came late last month when U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg, of Washington DC, did what most observers expected him to do – declare that the Medicaid program St. Matt the Devine had deigned for the commonwealth was a non-starter.

Medicaid expansion, adopted during the administration of former President Barack Obama, is already operating in Kentucky, thanks to the efforts of Bevin’s predecessor, Steve Beshear, a Democrat. Almost 500,000 working class folks in Kentucky who lacked health insurance because their place of employment didn’t provide it or it was too expensive benefitted from this effort.

Now some might see that as good news. Not St. Matt, who rushed into the breach and insisted that these new recipients invest “some skin in the game,’’ whatever in the world that entails, by requiring these new Medicaid recipients work or volunteer at least 80 hours a month and report those hours monthly or risk losing coverage. He also threw in a small, monthly premium for those who can hardly afford a cup of 7-11 coffee.

Having looked at the monstrosity twice, Boasberg told Bevin to go peddle his papers elsewhere. The judge stated that Kentucky failed to establish that the requirements would promote a central tenet of Medicaid — providing health coverage to vulnerable citizens. He indicated that at least 100,000 Bluegrass State residents could lose their coverage if the work rules went into effect.

Judge Phillip Shepherd

The ruling sent that great constitutional scholar, Mad Matt, into his usual agitated state.

“The problem is with a single judge in Washington, D.C. who I wonder if this judge has ever been to Kentucky, or Arkansas, or any of these other states that he would presume to know what is best for,” Bevin told the Gray Washington News Bureau after the ruling. “I think it is irresponsible, frankly, that he is messing up the lives of millions of people based on his own personal predilections, and it is hard for me to understand the logic.”

Now forget for a moment that it makes no difference whether Boasberg ever stepped foot in East Bernstadt, onto Oak Street in Ludlow, or anywhere else you might care to site within the commonwealth. This is a judgment regarding a federal program that provides coverage to poor people whether they live in New York City or Wheelwright, KY.

But his claim that the ruling would mess up “the lives of millions of people based on his own personal predilections’’ is a real knee-slapper.

The only person doing anything close to resembling what he describes is the governor himself, who is threatening to end the Medicaid expansion program because he didn’t get his way, literally threatening the lives of almost a half million of his constituents.

“He doesn’t seem to care whether or not people are healthy or whether they are leading healthier lives or whether states have ideas to help people get on their feet,” Bevin added. “He seems to be driven more by ideology, and so this will be contested, and we’ll appeal this up the line.”

So Boasberg is driven by ideology. Bevin is driven by, what, infallibility? How fortunate the commonwealth is to be guided by a governor who can’t be wrong.

This, of course, is not the first time ol’ Yosemite Sam has found himself crossways with the judiciary. And being a genius when it comes to the law and the constitution, St. Matt obviously is always right and the judges are always wrong.

Too bad they hold the cards.

Another recent example came when U.S. District Judge David J. Hale, of Louisville, imposed a temporary restraining order on House Bill 5, which bans abortions sought for reasons regarding the race, gender or potential disability of the fetus. The law, signed by Bevin, is patently unconstitutional under U.S. Supreme Court precedent and was one of several adopted by the Kentucky General Assembly this year to essentially ban abortion in the Commonwealth.

St. Matt of course, was at it again, issuing a video in which he said, “We will fight this in the courts and Judge Hale, who chose to side on the idea that, well, maybe we should err on the side of killing children, I don’t understand that methodology.”

Ol’ Yosemite Sam noted that the stay lasts for only 14 days to allow the sides to engage in discovery, but he added, “I’m not sure what we need to discover here. You’re either for life or not for life.”

It’s pretty grotesque for the governor to assert that Hale showed sympathy for killing children, especially after he complained about having to provide Medicaid coverage to poor families with kids. As former Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, once noted, “They ‘re pro-life. They think life begins at conception and ends at birth.’’

Of course St. Matt’s biggest battles have come with state judges. Back in May 2018, Bevin was grumbling about the courts, maintaining at one point that “there are many, many judges in Kentucky who do not deserve to be judges” and opining the state needs to look at the judicial system.

It’s much like saying there are many, many governors in Kentucky who do not deserve to be governor. At least one, anyway.

Mad Matt has proved especially critical of Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd, perhaps the state’s finest jurist who hears many of the cases emanating from state government (note, I’ve known Phil Shepherd for better than 30 years and we are on very friendly terms, including when it comes to choice of music).

Shepherd is very smart which naturally places him at odds with the governor. He also follows the law, which annoys St. Matt no end because it stops him from ripping the state constitution into so much confetti.

St. Matt blew his stack in September 2016 when Shepherd blocked him from overhauling the University of Louisville Board of Trustees. In his ruling, Shepherd said, “The governance of public universities has been carefully structured to insulate institutions of higher education from the direct influence of partisan politics. The governor’s assertion of the right to unilaterally abolish and recreate the Board of Trustees during the interim between legislative sessions is wholly inconsistent with the statutory framework of higher education in Kentucky.”

For this sane ruling, Bevin referred to Shepherd as a “political hack.’’

Then came the infamous state government pensions case. The 2018 General Assembly, in the session’s closing days, passed a massive pensions overhaul bill, opposed by the state’s teachers and others, that placed teachers hired after Jan. 1, 2019, in a hybrid cash-balance plan instead of a traditional pension package. It also required those teachers to work longer before becoming eligible for retirement and capped the amount of accrued sick leave teachers may convert toward retirement.

The statute attracted a lawsuit. Shepherd determined that discovery in the case was unnecessary, leading Bevin to appear on WKRC-AM in Cincinnati and declare, “I now have the most incompetent hack of a judge — I don’t know if in Kentucky, but certainly one of the worst — who happens to be in Franklin Circuit Court.”

Bevin sought to remove Shepherd from the case, an ultimately failed gambit. The judge subsequently ruled that the bill was improperly passed by the General Assembly, holding it null and void.

That led to a Bevin appearance on CNBC, where he claimed, “This judge who struck it down is frankly a terrible judge. He’s not a very competent attorney for that matter. And he’s gotten elected because that’s how you get into this position – because he’s a liberal Democrat representing a liberal district.”

When a unanimous Kentucky Supreme Court affirmed Shepherd’s ruling last December, Bevin wailed about “an unprecedented power grab by activist judges. By striking down SB 151 based on process, rather than merit, the Kentucky Supreme Court has chosen to take for itself the law-making power that the constitution grants to the legislature.”

That drew a rebuke from Daniel Venters, a since retired Kentucky Supreme Court Justice who authored the ruling upholding the Shepherd opinion. Venters described himself as a conservative Republican who voted for Bevin and actually thought the law itself was okay.

But he added that Bevin was wrong on the law and wrong in his “denunciation of the Supreme Court.”

“There is more at stake here than the fate of a pension reform bill,’’ he said. “Our freedom and constitutional order are guaranteed by the foundation of checks and balances. If the Governor’s fake news succeeds in undermining your faith in the Courts by bullying judges into submission, who will next stand guard when Constitutional law affecting you and your family is ignored?”

All this shows that Bevin is an ignorant, nasty piece of work who can’t fathom that there are some more knowledgeable about the law than he is. In his world, they must be taken down. In everyone else’s world, he’s a fool.

NKyTribune’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

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One Comment

  1. Walter Vergle says:

    Trash. Bill is totally biased and simply throws a plethora of biased data out that is cherry picked and painted a certain way to try to push his agenda. Fake news. I give this article and the fact the Tribune posts it a 0/10.

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