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Retired judge responds to Kentucky governor's criticism

Posted at 11:13 AM, Jan 17, 2019

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — When the Kentucky Supreme Court unanimously struck down a pension law he had signed last year, Kentucky Republican Gov. Matt Bevin called it an "unprecedented power grab by activist judges."

Thursday, the judge who wrote the ruling fired back.

In an Op-Ed sent to various news outlets, recently retired Justice Daniel Venters said he is a conservative Republican who voted for Bevin and has generally agreed with his platform. He even said he liked the pension bill that Bevin signed into law last year. But he said it was clear lawmakers violated the state Constitution when they used a legislative maneuver to pass the bill in just one day instead of three separate days in each chamber.

Venters said Bevin was wrong on the law and wrong in his "denunciation of the Supreme Court," adding: "I will not let his rant go unchallenged."

"There is more at stake here than the fate of a pension reform bill. Our freedom and constitutional order are guaranteed by the foundation of checks and balances," Venters wrote. "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?"

Bevin has been sued multiple times by Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear, and he often criticized the judges who rule against him. He has been particularly critical of Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd, calling him an "incompetent hack" and criticizing him for liking a political protest event on Facebook. Shepherd has said he only liked the page on the social media website to get more information about it so he could avoid it.

Venters said if left unchallenged, Bevin's "false attacks on Kentucky's judges will undermine the public's confidence and trust in the Courts," adding that Bevin has expressed a desire to appoint judges "rather than suffer their selection by you, the voters of Kentucky."

"It is certainly not the Courts that are engaged in an 'unprecedented power grab,'" Venters wrote.

It is the second time in recent weeks a Kentucky judge has criticized Bevin. Last month, Supreme Court Justice Bill Cunningham — who is retiring in February — told the Courier Journal that Bevin's words "go by you like the idle wind, and I don't think people pay a lot of attention to what he says."

Bevin is on an economic development trip to India. But his chief of staff, Blake Brickman, said he respects Venters but disagrees with his comments.

"Our judicial system, a supposedly unbiased and apolitical branch of government, is taking the unprecedented step of wading into politics," Brickman said. "How can the public expect our judges to rule in accordance with the law if they are openly expressing their opinions about our elected officials?"

Kentucky has one of the worst-funded public pension systems in the country. State officials are at least $39 billion short of the money required to pay benefits over the next three decades. Bevin has made fixing the pension system a priority of his administration. After Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in 2017, the legislature has put billions of dollars into retirement systems for teachers and state employees to keep them afloat.

But Bevin and other legislative leaders have warned the state can't afford to keep doing that, arguing lawmakers must make structural changes to the pension systems. Senate bill 151, which Bevin signed into law last spring, would have moved new teacher hires into a hybrid pension system. It would also restrict how teachers use sick days to calculate their retirement benefits and change how the state pays off its pension debt.

Lawmakers struggled to get enough votes to pass the bill, given the widespread opposition from teachers and other public workers in an election year. The legislature eventually passed the bill in one day by substituting it for an unrelated bill about local sewer systems. Lawmakers have been using that maneuver for decades to pass legislation when facing a tight deadline. But the Supreme Court unanimously ruled it was unconstitutional.

Republican lawmakers have also criticized the court's ruling, but Venters did not address those in his Op-Ed. Republican Senate President Robert Stivers said he disagrees with Bevin that the ruling was an "unprecedented power grab," but he said Bevin has a right to criticize the courts.

"The court needs to kind of grow up on that," Stivers said. "Do I agree with the governor? No, but hey, you're in the limelight. Get ready for the questions."