A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Rick Christman: State legal system salted with shady characters with too much power over daily lives

Just after being elbowed from our attention by pandemic tunnel vision, the juiciest judicial scandal was on the boil. You might have missed the story of a Northern Kentucky Family Court judge and her courthouse escapades, the details of which are far too salacious to be repeated in this publication.

In August 2020 this judge was removed from the bench by the Kentucky Judicial Conduct Commission, bringing to an end Kentucky’s biggest judicial shame of the past two decades.

Rick Christman

And it was exactly two decades ago when a Kentucky circuit judge conspired with four attorneys to steal $95 million from a $200 million damage settlement. The settlement was awarded to the 431 clients of the four attorneys against the makers of the diet drug fen-phen. Furthering his egregious betrayal of justice, the judge then helped create a non-profit from the proceeds of the swindle, which paid the judge and the attorneys $5,000 each per month.

Astonishingly, as all of this was going on, the judge was named Outstanding Judge of the Year by the Kentucky Bar Association. In the end, two of the attorneys went to prison, another (who was also the husband of a federal judge) was disbarred, and another was acquitted because the jury concluded he was too drunk to steal.

Needless to say, Kentucky judges have not always covered themselves in glory. But why? How do these trusted officials fall so far, so violently?

One reason is a lack of oversight. Kentucky lags all surrounding states in resources to combat judicial misconduct. A 2017 article in the Lexington Herald-Leader found that the investigation of some 250 judicial complaints that year was being handled by one part-time worker.

Considering its importance, the election of judges is not typically given due consideration by many voters. The politics raising the money necessary to purchase billboards, television spots and other campaign expenses can also tip the scales of justice in favor of donors. That said, there is a worse option.

Federal judges have a great deal of influence in the outcomes of disputes in criminal charges and large civil disputes. All federal judgeships require nomination from the President and confirmation by the Senate. Again another system infused with politics, only this time the judgeships are for life.

The election of judges in Kentucky is not likely to change within any of our lifetimes.

Consequently, it would be better if voters more closely scrutinized the integrity of judicial candidates. Before walking into the voting booth please be certain which candidate is best familiar not only with the law, but also with a sense public duty. Voters would also be wise to remember that, even among those we honor as judges, tales that are impossible to believe are not always untrue.

Rick Christman is the author of Fat Chance: Diet Mania, Greed and the Infamous Fen Phen Swindle. He lives in Lexington.

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