Louisville Judge Olu Stevens sues state conduct commission over possible disciplinary action
Lawsuit alleges that the Judicial Conduct Commission is violating the judge’s First Amendment rights by sending notification on March 21 that they plan to “sanction, suspend or remove” Stevens from the bench for comments he has made
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Olu Stevens has filed a federal lawsuit against the Kentucky Judicial Conduct Commission, claiming the disciplinary arm of the judicial branch intends to improperly punish the controversial judge.
The lawsuit, filed Friday in U.S. District Court, alleges that the commission is violating the judge’s First Amendment rights by sending notification on March 21 that they plan to “sanction, suspend or remove” Stevens from the bench for comments he has made.
The suit asks that a federal judge prohibit the conduct commission from imposing sanctions on Stevens.
However, Steve Wolnitzek, chairman of the Judicial Conduct Commission, said in an interview that Stevens has not been notified of impending punishment, just of a hearing.
"He got notice like anyone else would that a complaint had been filed and it would be set for a hearing," Wolnitzek said in an interview. "Doesn’t mean he is going to be found guilty of anything."
The state Judicial Conduct Commission is investigating Stevens, in part, for insinuating on Facebook that Jefferson Commonwealth’s Attorney Thomas Wine is racist and wanted "all-white juries."
Stevens has criticized Wine and his office repeatedly after a WDRB story in October reporting that Wine had asked the state Supreme Court to determine whether the judge was abusing his power by dismissing a jury because he felt it was lacking enough black people. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the issue. In the lawsuit, Stevens said the case in front of the high court should be captioned, "Commonwealth V. All Black Defendants."
Kentucky Court of Appeals Judge Irv Maze recently ordered Judge Stevens “not to dismiss future jury panels unless affirmative testimonial requirements … are met, leading the court to conclude that there was evidence of systematic exclusion.”
In his lawsuit, Stevens said Kentucky “has a history of racism within its criminal justice system and jury selection system” and the lack of diversity on juries has “remained unaddressed” by prosecutors.
Stevens’ argues some of his comments were private his public comments about Wine were “not out of any personal animus” but “out of concern” about the actions by Wine in “this matter of public concern,” according to the suit. Stevens is represented by attorneys Larry Wilder and J. Bart McMahon.
In the suit, Stevens said his comments were not a violation of judicial canons and the judge “has a First Amendment right to speak on such matters fraught with public concern.”
Stevens also questioned the actions of defense attorneys and others who “remained silent” while Wine “pursued a course of action that was racially discriminatory in its intent and impact,” according to the lawsuit.
His comments, according to the suit, were true and “the truth may not be punished, either criminally or civilly.”
A judge does not “check his first amendment rights at the courthouse door” and punishing Stevens would have a chilling effect on Kentucky citizens, the suit claims.
The lawsuit includes several quotes from attorneys and officials who support Stevens, including state representative Darryl Owens, attorney Ann Oldfather and attorney Aubrey Williams.
“In a city that strives to break through stereotypes that fuel discrimination and intolerance, outspoken advocates for racial equity and acceptance like Judge Olu Stevens are imperative if we are ever to achieve real progress,” the lawsuit quotes Owens as saying.
The lawsuit names as defendants the members of the Judicial Conduct Commission: Wolnitzek, Janet Stumbo, Eddy Coleman, Karen Thomas, Diane Logsdon, Joyce King Jennings, Jeffrey Walson, Kent Westberry, David Bowles and Jeff Taylor.
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