When Jefferson County residents cast their votes for Circuit Court judge this election day, they’ll choose between Julie Kaelin, a current District Court judge and former public defender, and Ebert Haegele, a prosecutor who currently leads the Narcotics Division of the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office in Louisville.
The candidates come from opposite sides of the legal system. According to Kaelin, her experience representing people accused of crimes gives her a perspective that is often lacking among judges.
Haegele, on the other hand, said his prosecutorial background means he’s used to making tough decisions similar to the decisions judges make from the bench.
On November 8, voters will decide which perspective they want in a judge and, in doing so, impact the decisions that come out of the court for the next eight years.
Most voters in Kentucky, however, will not face a choice between two candidates like Kaelin and Haegele. Out of this year’s 289 nonpartisan judicial elections held across the state, 210 are uncontested. In other words, voters have a choice between candidates in only 27% of Kentucky judicial elections this year.
Judicial elections are supposed to give the public a chance to choose its judges. In practice, however, the structure of these contests keep many well qualified candidates out of the race. The result is a bench with narrower legal experience and perspectives, a campaign system which is largely only accessible to the well-known and well-connected, and a right to vote that often lacks a real choice to make.
Jasmine Heiss, who directs the In Our Backyards initiative studying rural mass incarceration at the Vera Institute of Justice, said judicial elections are often overlooked compared to high-profile races for executive or legislative branch positions.
“The whims, the discretion and the orientation of an individual judicial decision maker can have an impact on the rest of a person’s case, and potentially the rest of a person’s life,” Heiss said. “Despite that power and that consequential impact, I think very few people when they go to the polls fully understand or appreciate what kinds of decisions judges are making.”
The lack of competition is especially visible in rural Kentucky. Voters won’t see a single competitive judicial race in 35 counties. Twenty of those sit east of Lexington, stretching across Appalachia from Robertson County in the north to Harlan County in the south.
This means people in those areas have little ability to hold their judges accountable for the important decisions they make.
“In small places where the intimate details of people’s lives are sometimes known to people on the bench, and where judges perhaps don’t see adequate resources outside of the justice system or the court system, they can really take on an overly large role in the public health and social space,” Heiss said.
What’s in a name?
Candidates and sitting judges give plenty of reasons why judicial ballots aren’t filled with fresh faces every election:
Only licensed attorneys can run for judge, so the pool of candidates is inherently small. Many voters don’t interact with the courts regularly, so the role judges play in government is less visible.
And there are a lot of seats to fill. Each voter will pick a candidate in anywhere from five to 43 judicial races, making it difficult to make informed decisions for every single one.
Most elections for public office run through a party system, marking each candidate a Republican, Democrat, third party or independent. Even if voters don’t recognize a name, they can make an informed choice based on the party a candidate represents on the ballot.
But Kentucky’s Code of Judicial Ethics prohibits judges and candidates from engaging in certain partisan activities. This includes identifying as a party’s candidate, acting as a party leader and campaigning on partisan endorsements.
Kentucky Supreme Court Justice John Minton Jr. said while the code correctly restricts partisan actions to keep judges independent and impartial, it has the side effect of leaving judicial candidates with far fewer resources than candidates for partisan offices.
“If you’re a nonpartisan candidate, there’s nobody waiting to greet you there,” Minton said. “It’s an independence that makes the judicial campaigning much more difficult, and it makes the fundraising very difficult.”
All of these factors combine to make judicial elections some of the most low-information and low-engagement races on the ballot. Candidates told KyCIR they may end up working as hard to make voters aware of their race in the first place as they do convincing those voters to support them come election day.
Kim Green, a public defender who supervises the Department of Public Advocacy’s Capital Trials Branch, ran in a primary for a Circuit Judge seat against four opponents, and said this issue became apparent to her over the course of the campaign.
“A lot of what I’ve come to realize is how little is known about what a Circuit Court judge does,” Green said. “Because it’s a down ballot nonpartisan race, I think a lot of times people don’t have much information when they walk into the ballot box to make a decision. And so a huge part of the campaign for me has simply just been getting information out there.”
This makes name recognition the most critical factor in winning judicial office. Sitting incumbents consequently have an advantage from the start over any challengers, having built up familiarity with the public over their prior years in office.
Incumbent judges are running unopposed in 195 seats this year, filling about two-thirds of the state court system. Only 28 incumbents face a competitive reelection campaign.
Bob Heleringer, a former state representative and District Judge candidate from Jefferson County, said there is always interest in running for judge among attorneys, but that incumbents’ reputations dissuade would-be challengers from running against them.
“I don’t see it as any lack of interest. When there’s vacancies, there’s lots of folks that file [as a candidate],” Heleringer said. “Incumbent judges that are unopposed are that way because lawyers think, by and large, they’re doing overall a good job.”
Heleringer said that because most of the public has little knowledge about judicial candidates and judicial power in general, some candidates are able to win office easily off of “magical names” that connect them to a more prominent family member.
In May, he bought advertisement space in The Courier Journal that listed his own endorsements for the May 17 primaries, in what he said was an effort to provide voters with more information to vote off of than just name recognition.
One race in Eastern Kentucky illustrates the power of incumbency. Boyd County’s only competitive election is to succeed retiring District Judge Gerald Reams, who was first appointed to the seat in 2000 to fill a vacancy.
One of the two candidates running is Anna Ruth, a court-appointed Domestic Relations Commissioner who hears complex domestic cases and makes recommendations on them to the county’s Circuit Court. Ruth said her interest in running for the seat was stopped by Reams’ first appointment to the bench in 2000.
“At the time I congratulated him, went to his swearing in, and told him then that I would never run against him,” Ruth said. “And as Judge Reams is retiring, I had decided maybe it was time to throw my hat in the ring again for District Court.”
Ruth will be on the November ballot against Devon Reams, an assistant county attorney and daughter of the retiring Judge Reams. Reams said although her relation to the retiring incumbent may affect some voters, she is confident in campaigning on her individual reputation across the county – both in her legal work and in her social connections.
“[People] will vote for me because they know me personally,” Reams said in an email. “I am proud of my last name, but the relationships I have formed over the years will take me much further than my last name.”
Candidates who are less well-known have to build name recognition for themselves – which of course requires a significant amount of funding to buy yard signs, billboards, radio ads and so on. This ends up placing another filter onto would-be candidates in their personal wealth and connections.
Green, the Lexington public defender, said the combined demands of fundraising, campaigning and continuing to work for a living can make the task of overcoming the name recognition gap seem overwhelming.
“The first thing people told me when I wanted to run for judge was, ‘You’re going to have to raise X amount of money,’ and that’s a daunting prospect,” Green said. “I think a lot of people feel like it’s a bit of a monumental task to run for judge, plus also keep going with whatever your law practice happens to be.”
There are other ways to pick judges. Most states use a combination of elections or appointments to choose who sits on the bench, but Kentucky is one of only ten states that selects all judges for every term through nonpartisan elections.
Heiss, of the Vera Institute of Justice said the process, while imperfect, allows voters to hold judges directly accountable, but a more effective system would keep people engaged with the judiciary between election years.
“I do think that there’s a real opportunity to have a well-functioning [election] system, if there is attention on the kinds of decisions that judges are making,” Heiss said. “A really important policy question is, what would meaningful judicial oversight and accountability look like, such that people had a real mechanism to engage with and understand the system much more frequently than during elections? And I think that could actually be transformative.”