Quick Takes

Beshear vetoes bill allowing ‘random’ venue changes in cases challenging Kentucky laws, decisions

By: - March 27, 2023 2:52 pm

The clerk of the Supreme Court has a new duty under a recently enacted law: Decide changes of venue through random selection. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Liam Niemeyer)

Calling it an “unconstitutional power grab,” Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear vetoed a Republican-backed bill Friday that allows a court case challenging the constitutionality of Kentucky laws and orders to be moved at random to a new courtroom across the state. 

Senate Bill 126, sponsored by Sen. Jason Howell, R-Murray, would give plaintiffs, defendants and the Kentucky Attorney General, as an intervening defendant, the ability to request a court case challenging a Kentucky law, executive order or regulation to be randomly moved to a new circuit court anywhere in the state. The clerk of the Kentucky Supreme Court would be charged with randomly selecting a circuit court to move the case to. 

Howell and other Republicans in the GOP-dominated Kentucky legislature have said SB 126 is needed to add on to legislation passed in 2021 that sought to curtail the influence of Franklin Circuit Court in Frankfort. That local court has traditionally heard cases involving state government because Frankfort is also the seat of state government, and it’s where most of the officials and lawyers involved in challenges to state decisions are based. 

The 2021 law allowed for lawsuit plaintiffs challenging Kentucky laws, executive orders or regulations to take such cases to their local circuit court instead of Franklin Circuit Court. 

In his veto message, Beshear said the bill represents the Kentucky legislature’s attempt “to control Kentucky judges and force Kentuckians to hear cases “in places where they do not live and in courts they do not choose.” 

“By allowing the automatic transfer of venue merely on request — without any hearing or argument, and without applying any legal standard … Senate Bill 126 unreasonably infringes on the judicial branch of the Commonwealth,” Beshear said. “The bill encroaches on the Kentucky Supreme Court’s rulemaking authority and completely removes the decision of the appropriate venue from the Kentucky circuit courts.” 

Beshear also said such an “automatic change of venue” could lead to costly delays and potentially require extensive travel across the state, echoing practical concerns raised by an organization representing Kentucky’s circuit court judges. A former Kentucky Supreme Court justice previously said any change of venue in a court case shouldn’t be “taken lightly.” 

Currently, circuit court judges in civil cases are allowed to approve or deny requests for a change of venue using their “sound discretion” after hearing arguments for and against such a request.

In a Friday statement, Howell said Beshear was wrong in calling the bill an “unconstitutional power grab” and echoed past Republican criticism of cases involving constitutional issues being heard by Franklin Circuit Court. 

“The reality is that after the 2021 session, plaintiffs who justly challenged the constitutionality of executive actions could finally redress their grievances in their home counties and courts,” Howell said. “Residents from 119 counties had to traipse to Franklin County to seek redress from the courts in certain cases. The Governor never came to the defense of those Kentuckians.

Howell called the randomized process under SB 126 to move such cases as “simple” and asserted it wouldn’t create “the costs or delays the Governor imagines.”

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Liam Niemeyer
Liam Niemeyer

Liam covers government and policy in Kentucky and its impacts throughout the Commonwealth for the Kentucky Lantern. He most recently spent four years reporting award-winning stories for WKMS Public Radio in Murray.