NewsLEX 18 Investigates


Contentious central Kentucky judge's race heats up

Posted at 7:00 PM, Oct 20, 2022
and last updated 2022-10-20 19:11:36-04

(LEX 18) — The race for circuit judge in Scott, Woodford, and Bourbon counties has been contentious from the start, and the tensions rose at a forum this week.

Voters will choose between the former judge Rob Johnson and first-time judge Katie Gabhart. So far, the questions in the race have surrounded whether Johnson will be able to do the whole job if elected and if Gabhart has the necessary experience to stay on the bench.

Johnson previously served as a judge in the circuit for 12 years and currently works as an assistant commonwealth’s attorney in his wife’s office.

Gabhart was appointed in May to serve as a judge in the circuit to fill a vacancy. Before that, she spent much of her career with the Kentucky Executive Branch Ethics Commission.

Conflict of interest?

Much of the controversy in the race has surrounded the fact that Johnson is married to the commonwealth’s attorney in the circuit, Sharon Muse-Johnson. Muse-Johnson runs the office that handles all of the circuit’s felony criminal cases. Meaning that ethically, Johnson would not be able to preside over those cases.

From the beginning of the campaign, the couple has said that Johnson could preside over all of the civil cases in the circuit while the only other judge in the circuit handled all the criminal cases.

Johnson has repeatedly said that situations of family members working in the same court circuit exist throughout the state and that those situations are dealt with.

While there are situations where relatives work in the same circuit, LEX 18 looked into whether there’s ever been a situation where a husband and wife have worked as circuit judge and commonwealth’s attorney in the same circuit at the same time.

After a thorough records check going back to 1978 by the Kentucky State Law Library narrowed down the search, LEX 18 found no prior instances where a married couple served as circuit judge and commonwealth’s attorney in the same circuit at the same time.

The Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts also told LEX 18 that they “are not aware of that situation in recent memory.”

The question of whether a situation like the Johnson’s exists elsewhere in the state came up at a forum held by the Scott County Republican Party on Tuesday.

Johnson replied that he didn’t know the answer to the question, but said that “the head of the Department of Public Advocacy is married to a circuit judge.”

The forum on Tuesday got heated at times, including a moment where Johnson stated that he could operate drug court and Gabhart argued that that wouldn’t be possible since it’s part of the criminal docket.

The forum was held by the Scott County Republican Party. Both Johnson and Gabhart are registered Republicans, but the race is non-partisan.

Circuit workload

In recent weeks, there have also been questions about Johnson’s plan of splitting up the circuit’s civil and criminal cases between judges. Johnson has said that civil cases take up more than half of the circuit’s workload.

The circuit’s chief judge, Jeremy Mattox, would be handling all of the criminal cases for the circuit’s three counties if Johnson’s plan comes to fruition.

Mattox isn’t able to address the judge's race but was given an informal opinion from the Judicial Ethics Commission advising him that he could speak publicly about claims related to the circuit’s workload.

”It's being articulated that 63 percent of the workload in our circuit is related to civil cases and that only 37 percent of the work is criminal cases and that's just not true,” Mattox said in an interview.

Mattox references a study that was released by the Administrative Office of the Courts in 2020 that indicates criminal cases take up more of a judge’s time than civil cases in the circuit. The study takes into account a judge’s work time both in and out of the courtroom on cases, he said.

Mattox pointed to one part of the study that showed about the same time was spent on 23 homicide cases in the circuit as was spent on more than 1,300 contract civil cases. Mattox said it’s possible for one judge in the circuit to handle all the criminal cases, but not practical.

“I can only be in one county on one day,” Mattox said. “But if you have two judges who conduct criminal cases – you can be in two places at once.”

In a statement late Thursday, Johnson disputed that criminal cases take up more of the workload. He stated that a judge’s work on civil cases can not be measured by court appearances and that much of the work on those cases happen outside the courtroom.

Ballot lawsuit

The questions over Johnson’s candidacy were brought to court themselves, with a lawsuit filed to remove him from the ballot.

The suit was filed by two residents of the circuit, and a special judge overseeing the case denied the motion to have Johnson removed from the ballot.

The special judge, Hunter Daugherty, said at a hearing in the case that since the issues presented could feasibly be remedied after Johnson is elected, the decision should go to voters.

The decision was appealed, and the state’s Court of Appeals upheld Daugherty’s decision.

Johnson’s attorney, Kenyon Meyer, said in a statement that they are “pleased, but unsurprised” by the Court of Appeals’ ruling.

“Judge Johnson is qualified to serve as a Circuit Judge for the Fourteenth Circuit under the Kentucky Constitution,” Meyer said in the statement. “The voters will decide.”

Judicial experience

Johnson still campaigns that he’s the best for the job based on his experience.

Gabhart addressed the comments about her experience at Tuesday’s forum.

"I did work on several trials, but I'm not over-inflating my trial experience. It is what it is,” Gabhart said. “But what is more important, is my experience for the commonwealth."

In the past six months on the bench, Gabhart says she’s presided over three civil trials and no criminal trials. She also worked as a trial attorney before her time with the ethics commission and worked on several civil cases, according to court cases.