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Retired state supreme court justice reflects on contentious judge's race

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Posted at 7:00 PM, Nov 10, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-10 19:16:10-05

A controversial circuit judge’s race ended on Tuesday after a heated campaign.

Former judge Rob Johnson ran against sitting appointed judge Katie Gabhart for a seat on the bench in the state’s 14th judicial circuit, which includes Scott, Woodford, and Bourbon counties. During the campaigns, the two went back and forth over Johnson’s being married to the circuit’s commonwealth’s attorney, and over Gabhart having less trial experience.

Ultimately, Gabhart won the election.

If elected, Johnson wouldn’t have been able to ethically preside over any of the circuit’s criminal cases while his wife held the position of top prosecutor for the counties. From the beginning, Johnson said that if elected he could handle all the circuit’s civil cases while the only other judge in the circuit handled all the criminal cases.

Two residents in the circuit filed a petition to have Johnson removed from the ballot over the issue, claiming that he wasn’t eligible to serve in the role. But a special judge denied the petition and Johnson remained on the ballot.

During the race, retired Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Daniel Venters was cited by the Johnsons as saying that situations of family members working in the same judicial circuit exist and that the court system can continue to operate fairly and efficiently.

Venters told LEX 18 from the beginning that the decision should go to the voters, and that the courts would make it work if Johnson was elected. On Thursday, we caught back up with him to look back at the race.

“I think we sometimes don't credit the public for weighing important factors in the decisions that they make,” Venters said. “But the experience we have is to let the voters decide.”

Venters acknowledged this week that it could be complicated and burdensome if a judge had to recuse from all criminal matters.

“Certainly this outcome avoids that problem and makes that a lot simpler, just go on as they have,” Venters said.

Venters also said that while the potential conflict of interest in Johnson’s situation was an important issue, the voters’ choice to elect Gabhart likely went beyond that.

“It's obvious they like her work and wanted to keep her, with the added advantage that it avoids that complication of having the massive recusal situation,” Venters said.

Judge’s races rarely get as much attention as this one has, but Venters highlighted the importance of voters being informed when deciding who presides over Kentucky’s courts.

“The system works,” Venters said. “It always works.”