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Mixed rulings for Republicans from Kentucky Supreme Court

Posted: 12:08 PM, Nov 15, 2018
Updated: 2018-11-15 22:28:39Z

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky's state Supreme Court on Thursday struck down a law requiring a panel of doctors to review medical malpractice lawsuits and upheld a law banning mandatory union dues for most employees.

The rulings gave Republicans and Democrats each something to celebrate, as the GOP passed both laws in their first year of control over the loud opposition of some Democrats. Republican Gov. Matt Bevin has credited the union dues law, known as right-to-work, with spurring record levels of business investment in Kentucky. But the medical review panel law has been criticized for clogging the state's court system.

For the past year, whenever someone files a medical malpractice lawsuit in Kentucky it is first reviewed by a panel of doctors before it can go to court. The doctors have nine months to issue a report on whether they think the claim has merit. The report can then be used as evidence at trial.

Republican state Sen. Ralph Alvarado, an emergency room doctor, sponsored the bill with the goal of reducing frivolous lawsuits. Tonya Claycomb sued to overturn the law on behalf of her child, Ezra, who was born with severe brain damage and cerebral palsy she says was caused by medical malpractice. She argued the bill had delayed her access to the courts, citing section 14 of the Kentucky Constitution. It says all courts shall be open and every person will have access "without ... delay."

Lawyers for Gov. Bevin argued the law is helpful because it gets the two sides talking before a lawsuit is filed, which could lead to an agreement to settle the case outside of court. They also argued section 14 of the Constitution only applies to the courts, not the legislature.

But the court ruled the law is unconstitutional because it delays access to the courts, rejecting the argument that section 14 of the state Constitution only applies to the courts.

"All branches of government can oppress the people and such oppression must be guarded against," Chief Justice John Minton wrote.

Alvarado said he would explore the option of amending the state Constitution to allow the law to go forward.

"Kentucky's health care system has been weighted down with frivolous malpractice lawsuits and today's ruling is only going to allow this problem to continue," he said.

Kentucky's right-to-work law has been in place since January 2017. Federal law requires most labor unions to represent all workers in a bargaining unit, even if some workers did not join the union. Most union contracts require all workers to pay a fee to support the union as it seeks to enforce the contract. But at least 28 states have passed laws exempting workers from those fees.

Labor unions in Kentucky argued the law was illegal in Kentucky because the state Constitution bans special legislation, defined as only affecting a specific group of people. Most the court disagreed, arguing the law affects all employers and employees, with a few exceptions for workers either covered or exempted by federal law.

"In this area of economic legislation, the legislature and the executive branch make the policy, not the courts," Justice Laurance VanMeter wrote for the majority.

Kentucky AFL-CIO president Bill Londrigan said the ruling would "further erode wages and living standards" by hurting labor unions' ability to organize and enforce contracts.

The decisions were part of a trio of rulings from the court Thursday. The court did not issue a highly anticipated ruling on the legality of a law passed earlier this year that made changes to the state's troubled pension system. The court is not scheduled to issue rulings again until Dec. 13.

The court did schedule arguments in a case challenging the validity of a Constitutional amendment voters approved on Nov. 6. The amendment would guarantee the rights of crime victims, including the right to be notified of and present for most court proceedings. Last month, a state judge ruled the question on the ballot was too vague and ordered state officials not to certify the election results. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in February.