A few months ago I decided to write the Judicial Conduct Commission to obtain some basic information I was unable to locate on the Ky.gov website. I never received a letter in return so I called the JCC and left a message referencing my written correspondence. I never received a response from them.
After my failed attempt to obtain information I decided to submit an Open Records request to Governor Bevin’s office to find out if they had ever received any correspondence from the JCC during his time in office. After all, there are two citizen members on the commission that are appointed by the governor and as Governor Bevin was newly elected and upsetting the status quo in the process in some of his appointments, I figured that perhaps the highly secretive Judicial Conduct Commission might write the governor if they believed the two long-time citizen members of the board, Joyce Jennings and Diane Logsdon, whose term expired on December 31, 2015, might be replaced.
As it turns out, Stephen Wolnitzek, Chair of the JCC, did write the governor a three-page letter on behalf of the commission dated May 31, 2016. The stated reason for the letter involved alleged misconduct by a staff member regarding a call made to obtain information about the JCC’s next meeting and centered around citizen member appointments, as well as subsequent events which transpired.
I will not recount the allegations or name the staff member involved as I believe, based on the other documents I obtained, that the letter contains potentially false and/or misleading statements. Certainly, if anyone wishes to file an ORR to read the details they certainly can. I would encourage anyone who cares about the integrity of the judiciary to do just that.
In my opinion, the letter was, in part, written because the JCC wanted the citizen members, who had served on the commission for over 20 years, to be reappointed by Governor Bevin. Indeed, Mr. Wolnitzek provided details such as the length of their time on the commission, job activities, and wrote of their “…exemplary service to the Commonwealth and its citizens…” At the end of the letter he stated “The Commission would also ask you to consider reappointing Ms. Logsdon and Ms. Jennings as citizen members. They have served the Commonwealth well for many years and are deserving of your consideration.”
I did not locate any documents where Gov. Bevin asked for feedback regarding the existing citizen members. The fact the JCC was advocating for reappointment for the citizen members did not seem right to me. I reached out to another state’s commission who also has gubernatorial appointments for its citizen members to confirm whether this type of behavior is commonplace and was advised they provide feedback on existing citizen members if requested by the governor but that they do not advocate for or against candidates.
Additionally, Mr. Wolntizek stated in his letter, while referencing a call received by the staff member, “While the phone call was highly unusual, it appeared to be a confirmation one of our members received from a member of the Bar earlier in the day.” This also sounded odd to me. Certainly the Bar should not be sharing unofficial information with the JCC.
For some citizens of the Commonwealth, the JCC is the only avenue of recourse in cases where judicial misconduct has occurred as some judges run unopposed and therefore, cannot be replaced. In my opinion, the two citizen members are the real watchdogs of the commission. I did find out something else I wasn’t aware of–that the citizen membership is comprised of, as Mr. Wolnitzek described, “one from each of the two political parties having the largest number of registered voters.”
The judicial branch of Kentucky cannot be described as transparent nor do we as the public see all of the complaints filed with the JCC, only those that result in disciplinary action. Additionally, years ago some journalists questioned why Kentucky had so many sealed civil cases in the state. From my understanding, nothing was ever really resolved as a result of those inquiries. I’ve never filed a complaint with the JCC but I’ve read the decisions and drawn my own conclusions, especially after hearing attorneys summarize the current state of the judiciary and how it works (or doesn’t).
Ultimately, Governor Bevin appointed two new citizen members to the JCC, Joseph Adams and Michael Noftsger. I applaud that decision, not because I think poorly of the previous members, but because I don’t believe anyone should expect to spend more than four years on the commission and the best way to encourage change is by bringing in new people with new perspectives. I attempted to find out who to file a complaint with on the JCC itself for what I believe is an offense to all of the citizens of the Commonwealth of Kentucky but no one I called or visited knew who to contact. It’s a sad commentary on Kentucky when those who are endowed with the tremendous responsibility to, as Mr. Wolnitzek wrote, “…promote public confidence in the integrity, independence, competence, and impartiality of the judiciary” need someone to oversee them.