State seeks $100,000 to defend lawsuit filed by Louisville Judge Olu Stevens
The Administrative Office of the Courts, which runs the state court system, wants approval from the General Assembly’s contract review committee to hire the firm Wyatt Tarrant and Combs from now through the end of the fiscal year on June 30.
LOUISVILLE, Ky., (WDRB) – Kentucky's judicial branch will ask lawmakers next week to review a $100,000 contract with a local law firm to represent the state against a federal lawsuit filed by Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Olu Stevens.
Stevens is suing the Kentucky Judicial Conduct Commission, claiming the disciplinary arm of the judicial branch intends to improperly punish the controversial judge.
The lawsuit, filed in March in U.S. District Court, alleges that the commission is violating the judge’s First Amendment rights by planning to "sanction, suspend or remove" Stevens from the bench for comments he has made to citizens, prosecutors and defense attorneys.
After the lawsuit was filed, Stevens and the commission came to an agreement in which the judge was suspended with pay pending an investigation into six charges of judicial misconduct.
The Administrative Office of the Courts, which runs the state court system, is entering into a contract with Wyatt Tarrant and Combs through June 30, the end of the fiscal year.
The money, according to the committee’s May 11 agenda, would pay attorneys to "review all documentation relating" to the lawsuit and provide the conduct commission with legal representation until the issue is resolved.
The 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."
Stevens will be on paid leave at least until the commission conducts a hearing on the judicial misconduct charges, which should be in the next few months. A hearing date has not been set yet. Other judges -- including a retired judge -- are handling Stevens' cases while he is off the bench.
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 and 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.
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."
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.
Stevens is represented by attorneys Larry Wilder and J. Bart McMahon.
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