District judges angry after County Attorney lifts prohibition on prosecutors running for bench

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Jefferson County Attorney Mike O'Connell, who has had a tense relationship with local district judges, has written an e-mail to his staff allowing them to run for judge in next year's election.

The decision, which reverses O'Connell's policy from four years ago, has angered district judges who say O'Connell is targeting some of them for adverse rulings over the last few years.

In an interview, O'Connell denied that, saying he was "not going to be dictating where anybody runs and in what division."

In the e-mail, O'Connell said he is lifting the prohibition against prosecutors entering the District Court judicial race "in order to support the democratic process in judicial races."

"I will continue to champion efforts to create a fair and level playing field for prosecutors in this courthouse," O'Connell wrote. "I believe creating an environment where our attorneys could enter the competition for these judicial seats is one way that we can encourage legitimate, public debate."

O'Connell said in the e-mail that his office employs some of the finest attorneys in the commonwealth and "by lifting the prohibition on running, I am simply strengthening the pool of possible qualified candidates."

But some district court judges said O'Connell is retaliating against judges with whom he has fought. 

"It's a spiteful thing designed to punish some of the judges who are not ruling in his favor," said District Court Judge Sean Delahanty.

And Judge Stephanie Burke said it is "totally politically motivated for him to target the judges who he feels do not succumb to his political pressures. He put this message out there months ago, this is what he intended to do if (judges) didn't go along with him and he's done it."

O'Connell said he gave the issue a lot of thought and believed it was best for citizens to have as many races and as much debate as possible.

"I think it's good that the public is able to make some real choices in these races," he said.

And the office has allowed prosecutors to run for judge in the past.

Court of Appeals Judge Irv Maze, who was County Attorney from 1999 to 2008, before O'Connell, said he had an evolving policy, which eventually allowed prosecutors to run for office but not practice in front of the judge they were running against.

"In the final analysis, I didn't think it was up to me to decide who could and who could not run," Maze said in an interview, pointing out, however, that he had to balance that with also "wanting to have a good relationship with the bench." He cautioned prosecutors about running for "revenge" motives.

In O'Connell's e-mail, he said he wanted this to cause "minimal disruptions" and would set guidelines related to how to manage cases during the election cycle, "including how to deal with donors and handling cases in front of judges who may be opposition."

And he said prosecutors were expected "to make your job a priority and act accordingly."

Commonwealth's Attorney Tom Wine said his policy is that prosecutors must take a leave of absence from the office if they are going to run for judge.

"We want them to devote their time to full-time prosecution or running for judge," Wine said. "My concern is that taxpayers get their money's worth. I know from experience it takes 100 percent of your time" to run for election.

For example, Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Josh Schneider recently filed to run for a district court seat and will take a leave during his campaign, Wine said.

Dan Goyette, chief of the Louisville Public Defender's office, said his policy requires staff attorneys to resign when they file to run for judicial office.

"The policy is based upon the fact that providing high quality, effective client representation demands an attorney's full time, attention and energy," he said.  "That is our core mission and first priority."

Maze and Delahanty both said having a prosecutor go before a judge he or she is running against could be a dilemma for both.

"It becomes personal after awhile," Maze said of running against someone.

And Delahanty said if one prosecutor is disqualified from a case, it could lead to the entire office having to recuse.

"There's sort of a theory that the county attorney's office is one big lawyer and one is disqualified ...," Delahanty said.  "It adds a lot of complication to the whole thing."

In an interview, O'Connell said he also would not allow prosecutors to practice in front of judges they would be running against.

Every judgeship in Kentucky is up for grabs this year. So far, no prosecutors with the county attorney's office have filed to run.  The filing deadline for next year's elections isn't until Jan. 28.

In the last few years, O'Connell and several of the 13 district court judges have been involved in many scrapes, including whether judges should reject a person's request for an expungement if the defendant has had a traffic ticket and whether court costs should be imposed on motorists who participate in his Drive Safe Louisville traffic school.

O'Connell also received a private admonition in May from a Kentucky Bar Association inquiry commission for sending a harshly worded letter to the judges asking them to put a stop to what he called "disingenuous maneuvering" by defense lawyers in drunk driving cases.

And most recently, his office has begun asking judges to force the defense to file motions to suppress evidence at least 30 days before trial -- which some judges said goes against criminal procedures set out by the state Supreme Court.  Burke has a standing order denying the motion.

O'Connell said he prohibited prosecutors from running when he took office in 2008 after seeing the race between Holton and District Court Judge Katie King, who were both prosecutors at the time.

"It was a very hard-fought, real contentious race," he said. "When I came in here, I thought, 'This is not a good thing.' I thought I was taking the high road of saying no one can run for these positions."

O'Connell said he has rethought that position, given the interest of some of his prosecutors.

"It's time to have some races and debate," he said. 

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