Quick Takes

Kentucky judge recuses himself from KEA case after Cameron questioned his impartiality

By: - May 31, 2023 1:38 pm

Attorney General Daniel Cameron addressed supporters at the Galt House in Louisville after easily winning the Republican nomination for Kentucky governor on May 16, 2023. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Austin Anthony)

A Kentucky judge has recused himself from a court case after Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron questioned the judge’s impartiality based on  political contributions supporting the judge’s recent reelection.

Phillip Shepherd

Franklin Circuit Court Judge Phillip Shepherd in an order Tuesday directed a lawsuit filed by the Kentucky Education Association be transferred to the other circuit judge in Franklin County, Thomas Wingate. 

The Kentucky Education Association (KEA), the state’s largest teachers union, is challenging the constitutionality of a new state law, Senate Bill 7, that bars the union from collecting dues through payroll deductions and has asked Shepherd to temporarily block the law. 

Cameron is defending the new law and had invoked another new state law, Senate Bill 126, to have the case moved to a new circuit court at random. An attorney for Cameron’s office has stated SB 126 is needed to allow lawsuit participants in challenges of state laws and decisions to have a case moved if they believe a judge may be biased. 

In a court filing footnote, Cameron said campaign contributions made by lawyers representing KEA to Shepherd’s nonpartisan reelection campaign last year — along with $100,000 given by KEA’s political action committee to another political action committee that used the funding, in part, for advertising to support Shepherd — could “cause a reasonable observer to question the impartiality or bias of the presiding judge in a case involving the KEA, its PAC, or its counsel.”

Shepherd has been a past target of GOP criticism for some of his rulings, and Republicans, including Senate President Robert Stivers, supported an opponent who unsuccessfully ran against Shepherd last year. 

Shepherd in his Tuesday order said that he did not think that individual donations to a judge’s election campaign or a judge’s opponent alone created grounds for recusal. 

But he did say “independent expenditures” given through political action committees, such as the funding given by KEA’s PAC, could more easily undermine public confidence in the court system.

“The Court believes public confidence in the Court system is more easily undermined by vast independent expenditures than publicly reported individual donations that are limited by law. Independent expenditures are less transparent, less regulated, and less subject to public accountability than individual donations,” his order stated. “This litigation is related to a labor organization’s ability to collect dues, and therefore, to fund such expenditures through its affiliated political action committee. Therefore, it is important for this Court to remove any potential for the appearance of bias.”

“If the Court rules in favor of the KEA, reasonable people may wonder if the ruling was influenced by the KEA’s financial support for the independent expenditure supporting the judge in the last election. If the Court rules against the KEA, reasonable people may wonder if the Court rejected valid arguments against the legislation in order to avoid the appearance of favoritism.”

Shepherd said he understood recusing himself and transferring the case could burden KEA with delays on a ruling of whether SB 7 will be temporarily blocked but that he was confident Wingate, the other other Franklin Circuit judge, would issue prompt rulings in the case. 

In March, Cameron recused himself from a lawsuit his office is handling after Pace-o-Matic, the largest “gray machine” company in Kentucky, gave $100,000 to a PAC backing Cameron’s race for governor. Pace-o-Matic and other companies are challenging a new state law banning their gambling machines in the state. The AG’s office is defending the law.

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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.

Kentucky Lantern is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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