OCTOBER 23, 2015
Judicial Campaign Conduct Committee finds ad by Kentucky Supreme Court candidate falsely misrepresents the role of a judge, and his opponent made inaccurate and unsubstantiated claims
A claim by Letcher Circuit Judge Sam Wright in his campaign for the Kentucky Supreme Court is false and misrepresents the role of a judge or justice, the Kentucky Judicial Campaign Conduct Committee has found.
On a counter-complaint by Judge Wright, the committee found that his opponent, Court of Appeals Judge Janet Stumbo, made an inaccurate claim about her length of service, and that her campaign made a claim about Wright’s fund-raising that the committee was unable to substantiate.
The first complaint, by Stumbo’s campaign, was about a Wright commercial saying Stumbo “sided with criminals nearly 60 percent of the time” when she was on the Supreme Court. Wright told the committee that the figure “comes from the fact that Janet Stumbo voted in favor of the convicted criminal defendant in 59% of the published cases in which she voted during the last five years she was a justice of the Kentucky Supreme Court. The published cases were used because those are the ones in which the court is establishing law or making precedent.”
In a letter to Wright, the committee said, “The ad fails to consider the number of unpublished criminal cases in which Janet Stumbo would have participated as a justice on the Supreme Court. The 60 percent figure may be significantly different if all criminal cases were considered.”
Beyond the question of numbers, the committee told Wright that judges and justices are supposed “to base decisions on the law and to not take sides. Many convictions are reversed due to procedural, statutory or constitutional issues, and these decisions should not be represented as ‘siding with criminals.’ To say otherwise is to purposely mislead the electorate on the role of a judge or justice.”
The committee told Wright, “Our committee has determined in previous elections for the Kentucky Supreme Court that similar campaign ads making this type of allegation were improper, and we do so again. Your ad undermines the high standards by which judicial campaigns should be conducted.”
The committee reminded Wright, and reminds voters, that Kentucky’s nonpartisan judicial elections are different from those for executive or legislative offices. The committee believes campaigns for judicial office should uphold the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary. The committee asked Wright to “cease the use of this ad or similar advertising making this claim and refrain from using it in the remainder of the campaign.”
After being notified of the complaint against him, Wright filed two complaints against Stumbo, making several allegations. The committee concluded that two were worthy of examination: Stumbo’s claim in an ad that she has 25 years of experience as an appellate-court judge, “more than any other person in the history of this commonwealth,” and her campaign’s May 7 claim on its Facebook page that he was raising money by calling prospects and handing the phone to another person who requested a contribution to Wright’s campaign.
The committee found that Justice Donald Wintersheimer served on the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court for more than 29 years, more than Stumbo. It asked the Stumbo campaign for the source of its fund-raising allegation, and the campaign provided a name. However, that person did not substantiate the claim made by the campaign.
The Kentucky Judicial Campaign Conduct Committee is an independent, non-governmental, non-partisan group of interested citizens from all over Kentucky, with a mix of lawyers, non-lawyers, Democrats, Republicans and independents. Each year there is a judicial election, the committee offers candidates an agreement in which they pledge to run fair and dignified campaigns, and disavow false or misleading ads and other campaign tactics that “impugn the integrity of the judicial system, the integrity of a candidate, or erode public trust and confidence in the independence and impartiality of the judiciary.” Only two of the 26 candidates seeking judicial office in Kentucky this fall did not sign the agreement: Ron Schwoeppe, who is running for a district judgeship in Louisville, and Judge Sam Wright.
Members of the committee are retired circuit judge Charles Boteler, Owensboro; retired Court of Appeals judge Tony Wilhoit, Versailles; Al Cross, Frankfort, secretary; Jon Fleischaker, Louisville, secretary; Jane Baker, Glasgow; Steve Cawood, Pineville; William Fortune, Lexington; Kate Hendrickson, Maysville; Spencer Noe, Lexington; Dennis Null, Mayfield; Marcia Milby Ridings, London; Howard Roberts, Pikeville; Bill Robinson, Covington; Cecile Schubert, Richmond; Kathy Walker, Paintsville; and Elaine Wilson, Somerset.