FRANKFORT — Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin Thursday once again attacked a Franklin Circuit Judge who the previous day struck down as unconstitutional a pension reform bill passed with little public notice in the 2018 General Assembly.
On Wednesday, Judge Phillip Shepherd struck down the law saying it violates Section 46 of the Kentucky Constitution which requires three separate readings of bills on three different days. He said it also violates the same section because it is an appropriations bill but didn’t receive a majority of votes of the elected membership of the House of Representatives.
During a Thursday morning interview on CNBC, Bevin said Shepherd “is frankly a terrible judge. He’s not a very competent attorney for that matter.”
He said Shepherd wins election to the bench “because he’s a liberal Democrat representing a liberal district. And so, unfortunately, he makes decisions based on politics.”
It’s hardly the first time Bevin has lashed out at Shepherd when things didn’t go his way in the courts. Bevin previously referred to Shepherd as “incompetent” and “a political hack who has no business being a judge.”
Bevin also attempted to have Shepherd removed from the pension bill case, claiming he can’t be impartial because he is a participant in the Judicial Retirement System. But that retirement system isn’t addressed by Senate Bill 151, the law Shepherd struck down, and Supreme Court Justice John Minton rejected Bevin’s request to appoint a special judge in the case.
SB 151 was originally a waste water bill but, when the Republican controlled Senate couldn’t muster the votes to pass SB 1, a much more extensive pension bill, House Republicans called a committee meeting and stripped out every word of the waste water bill and substituted a 291-page, watered down pension bill.
Over objections of Democrats, Republicans passed the bill on the floor a short time later the same day, even though when the bill was “read by title only”, its title still referred to the original waste water bill. The title was changed following the vote to pass the bill. After passing with 49 votes, the measure went to the Senate which passed it on the same day.
Bevin’s attorneys argued before Shepherd that SB 1, the original pension bill, had received three readings in the Senate which should satisfy the constitutional requirement. But Section 46 of the constitution says: “Every bill shall be read at length on three different days in each House, but the second and third readings may be dispensed with by a majority of all the members elected to the House in which the bill is pending.” Neither SB 1 nor the amended SB 151 received three readings in the House.
Bevin said in the CNBC interview Thursday he expects Shepherd’s ruling to be overturned. But he also seemed to undercut the importance of the bill, calling it “a fairly innocuous bill” and saying the state hasn’t “even begun to address” how it will solve the state public pension systems’ unfunded liabilities.
Bevin’s General Counsel Steve Pitt and Republican House Speaker Pro Tempore David Osborne, R-Prospect, say Shepherd’s decision imperils other legislation passed in a similar manner over the years — including a measure passed in 2018 to allow local governments and school districts phase in much higher pension contribution payments.
“[A]t first blush it appears that this ruling puts in jeopardy decades of enacted revisions to Kentucky statutes that have followed the same process as Senate Bill 151,” Osborne said in a statement after Shepherd’s ruling.
Shepherd addressed that question in his ruling. “The only legislative action presently before this Court is the passage of SB 151, and the Court’s ruling is based only on the validity of that bill,” Shepherd wrote.
Osborne also suggested the ruling could invalidate the phase-in bill.
But Kentucky League of Cities Deputy Executive Director J.D. Chaney told local officials not to panic about Shepherd’s ruling or its impact on the phase-in measure in a post on the KLC’s website.
After saying the ruling is certain to be appealed, Chaney wrote, “The good news is that this ruling does not automatically invalidate the phase-in legislation and a separate lawsuit would have to be brought to challenge it.”
If that happens, Chaney said, KLC would intervene and lawmakers would have sufficient time to re-enact the legislation.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort; follow him on Twitter @cnhifrankfort.