KY: Public financing for judicial elections?

Perhaps in anticipation of an expected 2012 Supreme Court election in the state, or as a reaction to judicial elections in other states, the Kentucky legislature will be considering a bill (HB 21) this year to create a public financing system for all judges in the state, paid for in part by a $25 annual assessment on all members of the Kentucky Bar Association. If adopted, Kentucky’s public financing system for judicial races might be the most expansive in the nation. Similar programs in Wisconsin, North Carolina, and New Mexico are limited to appellate courts only. A fourth program (West Virginia) adopted in 2010 is limited to only the state’s 2012 Supreme Court race.

Judicial Vacancy Commissions

Two states, both having dealt recently with contentious elections, are actively debating the use of Judicial Vacancy Commissions. While they share similar names, the two are dramatically different.

Alabama’s version builds on its pre-existing system where counties are allowed to opt-in into a system that allows for interim judicial vacancies to be filled by a commission that submits names to the Governor. The selected individual serves only the remaining years left in the term, but may run for a full term in the regular, partisan election system. So far, only 8 of Alabama’s 67 counties have the program, with a special constitutional amendment required for each county. However HB 443 would amend the state’s constitution to provide for the use of such commissions in all counties of the state. It was approved as amended by the House Judiciary Committee 2/11/10.

While Alabama’s version is obligatory (the Governor must select from the list of names given by the commission to fill the temporary vacancy), West Virginia’s proposal is explicitly advisory only. HB 4036 and SB 223 would create a Judicial Vacancy Advisory Commission to submit 2-5 names to the Governor when a vacancy occurred in any judicial office. The Governor would be under no obligation to make use of the list, but the list and most of the proceedings of the commission would be open to the public. The House version was approved by that chamber on 2/24/10 and is currently on the Senate floor, having been approved by the Senate Judiciary¬†(3/8/10), and Finance (3/11/10) committees. Probably because of the advance of the House version, the Senate bill has not made it out of committee.