Kentucky Supreme Court rules venue bill unconstitutional

Published 9:30 am Friday, October 27, 2023

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The Kentucky Supreme Court ruled on a 6-1 vote Thursday that legislation passed by the General Assembly this year requiring automatic transfer of civil cases to a randomly selected court is unconstitutional.

While the underlying case is on the legality of gray machines, which were banned after passage of House Bill 594 in the 2023 General Assembly, the High Court ruling was on another piece of legislation, Senate Bill 126.

That measure allows the defendants in a civil suit involving the constitutionality of laws, executive orders, administrative regulations and other orders by a Cabinet to submit a petition in the circuit court where the suit was filed to have it moved.  If the Attorney General’s office seeks to become an intervening party, it could also seek a change of venue and the Supreme Court Clerk would have to randomly choose the new court.

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The underlying case was filed in Franklin Circuit Court and Attorney General Daniel Cameron sought to have the case transferred elsewhere, under provisions of SB 126.

A Franklin Circuit Court judge declined to rule on the constitutionality of SB 126, due to questions concerning the validity of the legislation involving fundamental issues of practices and procedures before the courts, and the operation of the Supreme Court itself.

During oral arguments held before the Supreme Court in August, attorney Guthrie True, representing the plaintiffs in the case, which includes gray machine makers and non-profits who host the machines, told the justices SB 126 violates the separation of powers provision of the Kentucky Constitution, which states each of the branches of government – executive, legislative, and judicial – have equal power.

Matthew Kuhn of the Attorney General’s office argued in support of SB 126 during the August hearing, saying the General Assembly has sole jurisdiction of venue, according to the Constitution.

“All the General Assembly is saying is that we’re going to level the playing field, and nobody can get an advantage,” Kuhn said.

Republican lawmakers had sought for years to move civil cases out of Franklin Circuit Court because of a perceived bias against them before SB 126 was passed.

However, the Justices ruled, “We conclude that S.B. 126 is an unconstitutional encroachment by the legislative branch of government on the constitutionally conferred judicial powers of this Court.”

Furthermore, they ordered, “In cases across the commonwealth, the Supreme Court Clerk and all circuit court clerks presented with a ‘Notice of Transfer’ filed pursuant to S.B. 126 shall refrain from undertaking any of the duties imposed thereby.”

Justice Robert Conley was the only dissenting vote.