LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Gov. Matt Bevin’s general counsel wants Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd pulled from a lawsuit over the Kentucky Labor Cabinet’s “sick out” investigation after the judge "liked" a Facebook post related to Attorney General Andy Beshear’s gubernatorial campaign.
Stephen Pitt filed a motion Tuesday seeking Shepherd’s disqualification from hearing the case, contending that the judge liked a Facebook post by Rep. Chris Harris, D-Forest Hills, in which he said he was “honored to sign a pledge card to vote for the Beshear/Coleman ticket in November.”
Beshear, the Democratic nominee, is trying to unseat Bevin in the Nov. 5 election.
Pitt included the Facebook post as an exhibit to his motion, which he asked to be heard in Franklin Circuit Court Sept. 4. A review of Harris's Facebook page shows that Shepherd, using his personal account, was among 121 who liked the Friday post in question.
In his motion, Pitt argues that Shepherd “has demonstrated an inability to set aside politics to preserve the integrity of the judiciary.”
“With respect, this case does not even present a close call as to whether recusal is required,” Pitt wrote in the motion. “The Court’s public approval of Attorney General Beshear’s campaign against Governor Bevin runs afoul of multiple rules governing judicial conduct.”
Beshear, in a statement, called the motion "yet another absurd attack by an out-of-control governor."
"Matt Bevin and his labor secretary have recently announced their 'findings' that over 1,000 Kentucky teachers broke the law," Beshear said. "Now Bevin is trying to prevent the courts from giving those same teachers due process. Matt Bevin needs to stop attacking teachers, judges and his own lieutenant governor.”
Shepherd, who has repeatedly drawn Bevin's ire and been referred to as a "political hack" by the governor, could not be immediately reached for comment.
Beshear and the Jefferson County Teachers Association sued the Labor Cabinet in April, challenging the agency’s authority to investigate the sick outs that closed Jefferson County Public Schools and other school districts during this year’s legislative session. JCPS closed six times in the session’s waning days, the most in the state.
While the lawsuit also sought to block the investigation, the Labor Cabinet announced days before an Aug. 19 hearing in Franklin Circuit Court that its inquiry had concluded and found that 1,074 teachers broke the law by participating in illegal work stoppages. However, the agency said none would face civil penalties in the matter.
Pitt argued that Shepherd’s social media activity may have violated Kentucky’s Code of Judicial Conduct regarding impartiality and publicly endorsing political candidates. Although the lawsuit names Labor Cabinet Secretary David Dickerson as the primary defendant, Pitt said the court action is really “between two political opponents.”
“Any reasonable person would question whether the Court can impartially preside over a lawsuit between Attorney General Beshear and the Bevin Administration involving a politically charged issue after the Court endorsed the Attorney General on social media – particularly given that the Attorney General has injected such strong political overtones into this case,” Pitt wrote in the motion.
It’s unclear whether Pitt’s misgivings about Shepherd’s social media activity have been presented to the Kentucky Judicial Conduct Commission, which has the authority to punish judges. Bevin’s office did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
The commission has weighed in on social media activity by judges recently. In 2015, the commission privately reprimanded a judge for liking Facebook pages for attorneys, law firms and candidates for public office. The judge, who was not publicly named in the reprimand, informed the commission that he had liked those Facebook pages before he took the bench.
“All judges must be sensitive when utilizing social media so as to not violate the Code of Judicial Conduct,” the commission wrote in the reprimand.
Copyright 2019 WDRB Media. All Rights Reserved.