Four local candidates are vying for seats on the Kentucky Supreme Court and the Kentucky Court of Appeals, and they gathered at Northern Kentucky’s Chase College of Law last month to make a final appeal to voters ahead of the Nov. 8 election.
Rep. Joe Fischer, of Fort Thomas, and Supreme Court Justice Michelle Keller, of Fort Mitchell, repeatedly made reference to nonpartisan elections and whether impartiality is necessary for a judicial race. Fischer has referred to himself as a “conservative Republican” in his campaign, which has brought heat from the Kentucky Judicial Conduct Committee.
Also on stage at the talk, moderated by NKU law professor Ken Katkin, were candidates for the Kentucky Court of Appeals, Justice Susanne Cetrulo, of Edgewood, and attorney Robert Winter, also of Edgewood.
What is the difference between the Kentucky Supreme Court and the Kentucky Court of Appeals?
The Kentucky Supreme Court and Kentucky Court of Appeals are both appellate courts, Katkin said.
“This means trials don’t take place in either court,” he said. “The courts mainly hear appeals that arise from decisions in lower courts.”
Normally, an appellate court will rely on the facts that were found in the lower court; but appellate courts take a fresh and independent look at whether the lower court made an error of law during the trial.
Normally, Katkin said, a lower court’s judgment must be appealed to the court of appeals and the court of appeals cannot pick or choose its caseload; instead, ordinarily, it must decide any case that is appealed to it.
But the Kentucky Supreme Court, except in serious criminal cases, gets to decide what cases it wants to hear and what cases it doesn’t.
“If the supreme court opts not to hear a case, then the decision from the court of appeals stands as final,” Katlin said.
The supreme court is the final interpreter of state law and consists of seven justices who are elected from seven appellate districts and each serve an eight-year term. The chief justice of the commonwealth serves a term of four years.
“The supreme court also is responsible for establishing rules of practice, procedure and evidence for the state courts,” Katlin said.
NKY candidates for the Kentucky Supreme Court
Fischer is licensed to practice law in Ohio and Kentucky and has litigated cases in the Kentucky and Ohio supreme courts, including successful challenges to the Commonwealth’s redistricting laws. He served as a member of the General Assembly since 1998. As a legislator, Fischer is the author of the state’s trigger law.
Keller worked her way through NKU’s Chase College of Law as an intensive care nurse at the VA. She has been elected to both the court of appeals and the supreme court and was the first woman to hold both of those seats.
Keller urged voters to choose her on Election Day in part because of her experience both professionally and in life.
She touted her time as a VA nurse, along with her marriage to husband, Jim, (who was not in the audience to watch her speak because he was out campaigning on her behalf) with who she has raised two children who are now grown.
“I take my life experience as a nurse as a wife as a mother, I couple that with my experience in the courtroom and on the bench and I ask that the voters remember to look at the nonpartisan part of the ballot,” Keller said.
Professionally, “I’m honored to be the first woman to hold this seat on the Kentucky Supreme Court,” Keller said.
Keller has 32 years of legal experience, with 17 as a practicing lawyer. Keller has served 16 years on the bench and written nearly 1,000 opinions during that time, she said.
Fischer said he brings a broad and diverse skillset of legal experience to the table.
“Few candidates can claim they have successfully litigated constitutional matters in the Kentucky Supreme Court and also represented corporate clients in bankruptcy courts in Ireland, Great Britain, Australia and France,” Fischer said.
Fischer admitted that many trial lawyers don’t think a legislator has the right kind of legal experience to serve on the bench.
“But folks we have a real constitutional crisis in Kentucky,” Fischer said. “We have a court that has ruled that the governor has inherent constitutional powers to shut down schools, churches and businesses. So maybe it is time to elect a person who will respect the equal role and work of the general assembly and who can restore the balance of power among the branches.”
In a not-so-veiled reference to the debate over nonpartisan judge races that has tailed Keller and Fischer, Katkin asked the candidates what values are promoted or diminished by the requirement that judicial elections must be nonpartisan.
“Our constitution was amended to call for many things,” Keller said. “A unified court system and most importantly the nonpartisan election of judges at every level of our court system.”
She went on to say that it’s vitally important to keep courts nonpartisan.
“Lady Justice is blind for a reason,” Keller said. “Everyone should be equal in the eyes of the law. You should not be separated by race, gender, color, creed, sexual orientation or political party.”
In contrast, Fischer said he doesn’t think that ethical values like fairness or impartiality are diminished or enhanced by nonpartisan elections.
“Across the country we see that eight states have partisan elections for judges and 14 states have nonpartisan elections for judges,” Fischer said. “There is no empirical evidence of bias in states which elect judges on a partisan basis or a nonpartisan basis.”
But, Fischer said, there is political value in having an informed electorate.
“It’s not up to the Kentucky Supreme Court or the Judicial Conduct Commission to decide whether nonpartisan elections are good or bad,” Fischer said. “Their policy preferences are irrelevant.”
Judicial commissions, Fischer said, don’t write laws.
“Legislators do,” he said. “The law places no restrictions on nonpartisan candidates disclosing their party affiliations. That’s really what voters want to know. The sixth circuit has made it clear that the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the right to disclose party affiliation in nonpartisan elections and I’ll continue to follow the constitution in this matter.”
NKY candidates for the Kentucky Court of Appeals
Susanne Cetrulo is a 1984 graduate of the Chase College of Law and worked for two area law firms before forming Cetrulo law with her husband in 2001.
Cetrulo was appointed to the Court of Appeals in September 2021.
Robert Winter was born in Pittsburgh and served in the Navy and is, as he says, a Kentuckian by choice. He graduated from the Brandeis School of Law in Louisville. Winter has practiced in almost all areas of law, and in the last year has litigated approximately 160 appeals in Ohio and Kentucky.
In terms of how he would ensure the efficient operation of the courts, and whether he has any ideas for improvements, Winter gave a two-part answer.
“My experience in ensuring efficient operation of a court stems from my clerkship with our federal district court judge William Bertelsman,” Winter said. “There were two ways that he would ensure administration of his office.”
The first, Winter said, was internal.
“There would be meetings of the staff weekly and each case would be reviewed including any problems, any strong points, any review of deadlines that were set internally,” Winter said. “That way the goal of ensuring that cases are properly ruled on are properly and timely ruled on. That’s the goal that we all have is to get decisions out the door so the litigants can pursue their lives.”
The second tool, Winter said, was a computer generated report that shows cases that have been either adjudicated or under submission for six months.
“That would call attention to the judge as to issues that he may or she may not be aware of and take the matter under submission,” Winter said.
The goal, Winter said, is to move cases along and to get decisions made quickly.
“The goal is to make sure the cases move along,” he said. “These are the two tools of management we can use to ensure courts are efficiently managed.”
Cetrulo said she would recommend voters elect judges who have a proven track record of being very efficient.
“Obviously in my court I’m very proud of the fact that we have kept up with all of our cases despite a campaign year,” Cetrulo said. “I do have a proven record of being efficient. As a trial attorney, as a busy mom, as a small business owner, I have a reputation that I make sure that I’m on time, and that I didn’t ask for more time. I make sure things get done in a timely fashion.”
She said sometimes when she was a practicing attorney she had clients that would just ask for a judge to make a ruling, even if it wasn’t in their favor, just so they could get on with their lives.
“We do need to make sure that we rule not only properly but efficiently and promptly,” Cetrulo said.
In representing hundreds of families and children going through the foster program, Cetrulo said children can be in limbo for years.
“My experience and knowledge of how important it is to get that finality to those families has served me well,” she said. “We also need to make sure as a court that we have staff that is paid to clerks and support staff that is paid so we can compete with the private sector.”
Next, the candidates were asked to talk about the importance of juries in our system of justice.
“The role of juries cannot be emphasized enough,” Cetrulo said. “I’m proud of the fact that I’ve tried a lot of cases to juries over the years before I became a judge on the court of appeals. I’ve really treasured juries.”
Cetrulo told the story of a juror who, upon being asked if they would be comfortable awarding substantial compensation if the injured is found to be entitled to it, asked to approach the bench.
“The juror said, ‘Your honor, I just work part time delivering pizzas,'” Cetrulo recalled. “I don’t have a lot of money to give.”
She said that story always reminds her that even though jurors may try to get out of service sometimes or complain when they are called, they really do take it seriously and that’s why jurors are so important.
“We need to make sure as a legal community that we encourage juror service,” Cetrulo said.
As for Winter, he said the role that juries play in our system is to be the conscience of a community.
“They own and refine the facts that the attorneys are able to get before them and make factual decisions,” Winter said. “He must sift and weigh his evidence that he plans to introduce and she must decide the risks and hazards of doing so and what the opposing council and opposing party will also do. If you decide to try the case, then try the case, but recognize that there are hazards there. Because the jury is the conscience of the community.”
Winter said he is grateful that there are constitutional protections for juries.
“But we as attorneys have got to be careful when deciding when to take a case to trial or not,” he concluded.
As for what makes Winter a good candidate that voters should choose on Nov. 8, he pointed to his 38 years of training, education and experience in the practice of law.
“I graduated from University of Louisville magna cume laude in 1983,” Winter said. “I clerked for our federal district court judge William Bertelsman, who taught me how a court is to be run.”
His experience in the Navy, Winter said, taught him a lot about personnel.
“How to interact and manage and supervise people,” Winter said. “How to budget. How finance works. And all these experiences come to a spot in my life where I am prepared to serve the public once again as a judge of the Kentucky court of appeals, and I ask for your vote on Nov. 8.”
Cetrulo cited the people who have backed her to get where she is, including Judge Judy West of the court of appeals.
“I am only on the court of appeal snow because I was recommended and encouraged to apply when it became available last year,” Cetrulo said.
Cetrulo also said she is a person who has good communication skills, an ability to see both sides, her ability to be impartial, and her involvement with the community.
“We want judges who are involved in their community, who are fair and impartial and have the right reputation and experience,” Cetrulo said. “That’s why I’m asking for your vote to stay on the court of appeals.”