FRANKFORT, Ky. (KT) - Former Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Daniel J. Venters sent an op-ed to Kentucky Today and other news outlets where he took issue with Gov. Matt Bevin’s comments on the high court regarding their decision on the public pension bill.
The Justices, including Venters, who was on the bench at the time and authored the main opinion, unanimously upheld a ruling by Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd that stated the process used to pass the legislation, Senate Bill 151, was unconstitutional.
In his piece, Venters noted Gov. Bevin accused all seven Justices of being politically-motivated “activist judges” who defied the Rule of Law in an “unprecedented power grab” and that the Court’s opinion was “screwing Kentucky.”
“As the Supreme Court Justice who wrote that opinion, and as a Republican who voted for the Governor and has generally agreed with much of the Governor’s platform, including the dire need for public pension reform, I will not let his rant go unchallenged,” Venters wrote.
He said if left unchallenged, Bevin's "false attacks on Kentucky's judges will undermine the public's confidence and trust in the Courts," saying Bevin has expressed a desire to appoint judges "rather than suffer their selection by you, the voters of Kentucky."
"It is certainly not the Courts that are engaged in an 'unprecedented power grab,'" Venters wrote.
“Activist judges’ are judges who ignore the plain meaning of the words of the law and interpret them to suit the judge’s own personal policy preferences,” Venters said. “As a conservative, I strongly believe that judges must adhere to the plain text of the law when it is clear and unambiguous; and, that they should not interpret the law to suit their own personal views and philosophies. The Kentucky Supreme Court abides by that principle and the pension bill opinion is a sterling example of it.”
He quoted from Section 46 of the Kentucky Constitution, which says, “Every bill shall be read at length on three different days in each House, but the second and third readings may be dispensed with by a majority of all the members elected to the House in which the bill is pending.”
“That language is plain and simple,” Venters said. “The 2018 pension reform bill was enacted by reading in each house the title of the bill, ‘AN ACT relating to the local provision of wastewater services,’ and giving each legislator a copy of the 291-page bill about pension reform a few minutes before voting. What’s your decision? Was the 2018 pension bill ‘read at length on three different days?’
“Does passing a pension bill by reading the title of a wastewater services bill comply with our Constitution? The Governor would ignore the plain language of the Section 46 and interpret it to suit his own personal preferences simply because he likes the 2018 pension reform bill. The Governor is wrong. He was wrong about the issue and he is wrong in his denunciation of the Supreme Court.”
Venters said the governor has a habit of attacking the judicial messenger when disappointed by their decisions.
“When you don’t like the message, attack the messenger. Such verbal assaults on the judges throughout Kentucky have become a regular part of his demagoguery,"he wrote. "I do not speculate upon the Governor’s political objectives, but beware: he has also expressed his desire for the power to appoint judges, rather than suffer their selection by you, the voters of Kentucky.”
Venters concluded his op-ed by saying, “Like ‘fake news,’ a false statement repeated without rebuttal becomes accepted as truth. There is more at stake here than the fate of a pension reform bill. Our freedom and constitutional order are guaranteed by the foundation of checks and balances built into our state and national Constitutions. Each branch of our government guards against the oppressive impulses of the others. If the Governor’s fake news succeeds in undermining your faith in the Courts by bullying judges into submission, who will next stand guard when Constitutional law affecting you and your family is ignored?”
Bevin’s chief of staff, Blake Brickman, responded to the Op-Ed piece. Bevin is on an economic development trip to India.
“I respect Justice Venters but disagree with his comments. His op-ed proves the Governor’s point—that our judicial system, a supposedly unbiased and apolitical branch of government, is taking the unprecedented step of wading into politics,” Brickman said. “How can the public expect our judges to rule in accordance with the law if they are openly expressing their opinions about our elected officials?”
Brickman added Venters’ argument that judges must ‘adhere to the plain text of the law’ is “rebutted by the very opinion he wrote in the pension case, which ignored words and added others to Section 46 of the Constitution.”
Republican lawmakers were also critical of the court's ruling, but Venters did not address those in his Op-Ed. Republican Senate President Robert Stivers told the Associated Press he disagrees with Bevin that the ruling was an "unprecedented power grab," but he said Bevin has a right to criticize the courts.
"The court needs to kind of grow up on that," Stivers said. "Do I agree with the governor? No, but hey, you're in the limelight. Get ready for the questions."