FRANKFORT, Ky., Sept. 13, 2019 – Chief Justice of Kentucky John D. Minton Jr. gave the legislature an update today on how the Judicial Branch is “combining new approaches with tried and true methods” to improve how the courts serve the public.
“With each passing year, the issues and challenges facing the court system become more intricate and complex, thanks to rapid changes in technology, social norms and business practices,” he said. “Sophisticated times call for sophisticated measures. From civil justice reform to judicial redistricting to opening child protection cases to addressing court delays and the opioid epidemic, we’re dealing with sensitive, thorny issues that require all of the expertise, intelligence and imagination we can muster.”
These comments were part of the annual State of the Judiciary address before the General Assembly’s Interim Joint Committee on Judiciary at the Capital Annex in Frankfort. The full address can be found here. To watch the chief justice give his address, visit KET's website.
Civil Justice Reform, Business Courts and Court Efficiency
The Supreme Court has launched a civil justice reform initiative to address concerns about the cost, delay and complexity of civil litigation. Deputy Chief Justice Lisabeth Hughes chairs the Civil Justice Reform Commission, which has recommended that the Supreme Court approve a pilot Business Court Docket in two divisions of Jefferson Circuit Court.
“By unclogging regular dockets, Business Courts give complex commercial cases the attention they need, improve court efficiency and create a more attractive forum for doing business,” Chief Justice Minton said. “We’re cautiously optimistic that the Business Court Docket will be up and running in Jefferson County on Jan. 1, 2020.”
He said the Civil Justice Reform Commission’s other focus is on case management with the goal of moving less complex cases through the court system quickly to reduce docket loads and free up resources for more complex cases. This new model puts the responsibility on judges and courts – instead of attorneys and parties – to manage cases by requiring early intervention and a strict case management plan that forces a case to progress rather than remain stagnant.
“If the Supreme Court approves this recommendation, Boone/Gallatin counties and Knox/Laurel counties will be the project’s pilot jurisdictions,” he said.
In addition, the Court Efficiency Committee has been meeting since early 2018 to identify and address issues that lead to delays within the court system.
Judicial Redistricting Continues With New Caseload Study
“Work continues on judicial redistricting as we prepare for the second weighted caseload study, which will be conducted in 2020,” Chief Justice Minton said. “Regular caseload studies ensure that we base any proposals for judicial redistricting or reallocation on current data.”
He said that the Administrative Office of the Courts has re-engaged the National Center for State Courts to facilitate meetings with groups of circuit, family and district judges in October 2019. The court system will review its current practices in preparation for conducting a weighted caseload study in 2020 and making judicial redistricting and reallocation recommendations to the General Assembly before the 2021 legislative session.
Community Engagement Listening Sessions in Jefferson County
Chief Justice Minton asked Chief Court of Appeals Judge Denise Clayton, who is also chair of the Jefferson County Racial Fairness Commission, to organize a community engagement listening session in Jefferson County based on town hall meetings conducted by the National Center for State Courts. The purpose was to educate the public about the different roles and responsibilities of participants in the court system and listen to citizens’ concerns about the courts in Jefferson County.
The first Court Talks listening session took place May 16, 2019, at Spalding University and featured a panel of speakers from the larger justice community. This initiative also included a community survey and a series of focus groups in Louisville on bail and incarceration, evictions, Family Court, Drug Court and expungements. The focus groups were conducted by graduate students from the University of Louisville Department of Sociology.
Chief Justice Minton said the results will guide how the court system addresses concerns raised during these community engagement activities.
Strong Progress on Move to Electronic Court Records
KYeCourts is a massive effort to improve and streamline court operations through updated technology. A critical part of this initiative is a new case management system called KY3, which launched this year in eight pilot counties. KY3 lets circuit clerks store digital images and court case data electronically, which eliminates the need for paper files and moves the court system closer to its goal of maintaining an all-electronic case record.
“We believe that electronic filing and scanning will benefit all of our justice partners, offering them the ability to electronically submit, store and share information systemically in secure environments,” Chief Justice Minton said.
Early Results From Open Courts Pilot Project
For the first time in Kentucky, some child protection cases are being opened to the public under a four-year pilot project taking place from 2018-2021. While child protection cases are normally closed due to confidentiality, the 2016 Kentucky General Assembly passed legislation requiring the Supreme Court to look at whether it’s beneficial to open cases involving child dependency, neglect and abuse, and termination of parental rights.
The first phase of the Open Family Court Pilot Project took place from March to May 2018 in Hopkins and Jefferson counties and the four-county circuit of Harrison, Nicholas, Pendleton and Robertson. Judges in those counties volunteered to open their Family Courts to the public and the media for a two-month period of observation and evaluation. The second phase of the pilot project will start this fall in Fayette Family Court.
Court System Helping Mitigate Kentucky’s Drug Epidemic
The opioid epidemic has placed a severe strain on the courts and substance use disorders have impacted individuals and families throughout the commonwealth. The court system is taking advantage of its unique role to help mitigate the drug epidemic in Kentucky.
Kentucky has joined Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia to form a Regional Judicial Opioid Initiative. RJOI addresses the need for education, resources and services. The initiative has been organized with the aid of the National Center for State Courts and a federal grant.
The court system also launched a project in April 2019 to give judges, circuit clerks and court staff the training and resources they need to effectively handle opioid-related cases. RESTORE provides evidence-based information on best court practices to support the treatment of opioid use disorders for court-involved individuals and their families. RESTORE stands for Responsive Education to Support Treatment in Opioid Recovery Efforts and is funded by a federal grant awarded to the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
Future of Specialty/Drug Courts
Kentucky began the Drug Court experiment in 1996 and today this established program is considered a highly effective way to combine treatment with the legal weight of the criminal justice system to help participants rehabilitate their lives for much less than the cost of incarceration.
“Yet 23 years later, the stark truth is that our current Drug Court model has become insufficient to address the burgeoning needs of Kentuckians with substance use disorders,” Chief Justice Minton said. “Our current program serves only high-risk, high-need individuals who have been convicted of a non-violent felony and enter Drug Court through a plea agreement or referral. It is not designed to support the huge influx of people who are coming into the courts with lesser charges, such as misdemeanors.
“These court-involved individuals, their families and their communities would benefit tremendously from access to case management resources and treatment providers at every level of the court system. We’re working on a budget request that would begin to address these needs.”
Addressing Jail Overcrowding and Bail Reform
He noted that a recent in-depth series in the Lexington Herald-Leader by John Cheves has heightened public awareness of the issue of jail overcrowding and that this week’s testimony before the Interim Joint Committee on Local Government further highlighted the escalating issues faced by our county jails.
“During yesterday’s hearing, several legislators mentioned the need for the court system to be at the table to address solutions to this problem,” he said. “I want to make it clear that I couldn’t agree more. Our pretrial officers and our judges make critical decisions every day that impact inmates and jail populations. We need to be a part of this critical conversation.”
Kentucky Still Lags in Judicial Salaries
Chief Justice Minton said that Kentucky’s judicial salaries continue to be woefully lacking at all levels of the court system, with Kentucky’s general jurisdiction circuit judges ranking 51st out of 55 states and territories and Kentucky’s associate Supreme Court justices ranking 50th out of 55 states and territories.
“I appreciate the legislature approving 5% salary increases for judges over the past two fiscal years, but unfortunately Kentucky’s judicial salaries still lag far behind most states and territories,” he said. “The quality and viability of Kentucky’s judiciary depends on attracting and retaining a well-qualified bench and I believe it’s important to continue bringing judicial salaries to your attention.”
AOC Changes Organizational Structure Based on Audit Recommendations
The AOC has implemented a new organizational structure in response to recommendations from the recent audit by the Kentucky Auditor of Public Accounts and from Deloitte, a consulting company the AOC engaged to advise on how best to implement the audit recommendations. The new structure went into effect in May 2019 and will bring the AOC’s administrative and financial operations up to industry standards after years of doing business much the same way.
“While this new structure will require a considerable investment of time and money, the improvements we’re making today will ensure a stronger court system tomorrow,” he said.
The chief justice is the administrative head of the state court system and is responsible for overseeing its operation. Chief Justice Minton was elected to the Supreme Court in 2006. His fellow justices elected him to serve a third four-year term as chief justice in 2016. He is a member of the board of directors for the State Justice Institute, a federal nonprofit corporation that awards grants to improve the quality of justice in state courts. He is also a past president of the Conference of Chief Justices and past chair of the National Center for State Courts Board of Directors.
The AOC is the operations arm for the state court system. The AOC supports the activities of 406 elected justices, judges and circuit court clerks and more than 3,400 Kentucky Court of Justice employees. The AOC also executes the Judicial Branch budget.