FRANKFORT, Ky. — Facing lawsuits from the state’s top lawyer and adverse rulings from some of its judges, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin said Thursday that lawmakers should consider a change that could give the governor more control over deciding the people assigned with enforcing and interpreting the state’s laws.
Bevin has been sued four times by the Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear. Only one of those cases has been decided, with the state Supreme Court telling Bevin he broke the law when he ordered spending cuts at the state’s public colleges and universities without asking the legislature for permission. The other cases are still pending, but Franklin Circuit Judge Philip Shepherd has ruled against Bevin in some cases, prompting the governor to call him a “political hack.”
Responding to a question while speaking to the Kentucky chapter of the Federalist Society, Bevin said Kentucky should consider a constitutional amendment that would let the governor appoint an attorney general. He said any such move likely would happen after he left office, but said it could be in the state’s best interests going forward.
“Should you have an attorney general and a governor that are on different sides of an issue?” he said, noting he and Beshear have disagreed on how the state should responds to lawsuits challenging state laws restricting labor unions and abortion. “It would seem to me unproductive at best.”
Beshear spokesman Terry Sebastian said the people of Kentucky deserve an independent attorney general who works for them.
“While the governor is talking about how he should have more power, (Attorney) General Beshear is arresting child predators, protecting seniors from scams and fighting our drug epidemic,” he said.
Seven states have appointed attorneys general. The governor appoints the attorney general in Wyoming, Alaska, New Jersey, New Hampshire and Hawaii. In Maine, the state legislature chooses the attorney general while in Tennessee the governor appoints the justices of the state Supreme Court, who then select an attorney general.
In Kentucky, conflict between the governor and attorney general has not been limited to Bevin and Beshear. Former Democratic Attorney General Greg Stumbo investigated Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher, which led to Fletcher’s indictment on three misdemeanors that were eventually dropped. And when former Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway announced he would not appeal a ruling striking down Kentucky’s ban on recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other states, former Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear hired private attorneys to appeal the ruling anyway.
Bevin and Beshear’s feud has been intensified by the fact both men could face each other in the 2019 governor’s race.
Going beyond the attorney general, Bevin said the state should rethink how it selects its judges. Judges in Kentucky are elected in nonpartisan elections. Bevin suggested Kentucky consider the Tennessee model, where the governor appoints the Supreme Court justices with confirmation by the legislature and other judges are elected.
“We have a remarkable number of people who have no business being judges,” Bevin said. “They are people who have not been able to cut it, either in private practice or even publicly, but have somehow managed to get themselves elected to a position where they now have responsibility to jack people around in ways that are not even remotely connected to the law.”
When asked about Bevin’s comments, Kentucky Chief Justice John Minton, the state’s chief administrative judge, declined to comment.
Lawmakers have been reluctant over the years to change the way judges are selected. The state Senate unsuccessfully attempted to pass a law earlier this year that would have stripped the attorney general’s office from some of its powers. Asked Thursday about Bevin’s comments, Republican House Speaker Jeff Hoover said he had not considered the idea and would have to give it some thought.