FRANKFORT — A quickly developed and implemented policy restricting access to the state Capitol by the Poor People’s Campaign was improperly formulated and illegal, according to an Attorney General’s opinion.
The policy was not promulgated through prescribed administrative regulations required by state law, the five-page opinion written by Assistant AG Laura Tipton.
The opinion was requested by state lawmakers Rep. Attica Scott, D-Louisville, and Rep. George Brown, D-Lexington, after Capitol security barred protesters from the Poor People’s Campaign from entering the Capitol in numbers of more than two at a time on several separate occasions. More than two dozen other Democratic lawmakers subsequently signed the request for an Attorney General’s opinion.
“We felt all along that Gov. Bevin’s administration’s actions were an illegal and arbitrary limit on our constituents’ rights to enter the Capitol,” Scott and Brown said in a joint statement. “This opinion verifies that our view is correct. We also recognize that there is still a way the administration can strictly limit Capitol access in the future. We call on the governor not to go down that disastrous path. The People’s House must always remain open to the people.”
Kentucky State Police Commissioner Rick Sanders implemented the policy after the first two demonstrations by the group during which participants blocked traffic on the street between the Capitol and the Capitol Annex and then the following week entered the Capitol and refused to leave after closing time.
Questioned about the policy, Sanders said the group was asked to request a permit to demonstrate inside the Capitol, saying they would almost certainly have been granted the request. But the group contended they didn’t need a permit to enter a publicly financed seat of state government.
They said they weren’t there to protest or demonstrate but to speak with elected representatives and Gov. Matt Bevin about social justice issues of race, economic and environmental justice.
They also contended the policy was discriminatory because it was developed specifically to target them and wasn’t applied to other groups such as teachers who descended on the Capitol in the thousands during the General Assembly to protest changes to their retirement system.
The AG’s opinion said the group did not represent an imminent or serious security risk and thus there was sufficient time to formulate the policy through the usual administrative regulations process.
“Although we recognize that the KSP and the Finance Cabinet must have the flexibility and discretion to respond to imminent threats to the security and welfare of persons working in or otherwise using state owned buildings, this is not a case involving such an imminent threat that the promulgation of administrative regulations was impossible,” Tipton wrote.
The opinion said the administrative regulations process provides the public an opportunity to comment on proposed regulations, including “rules relating to entry into their seat of government.”
The Bevin administration did not respond to a request for comment left with the governor’s press office.
After Sanders announced the policy, members of the Poor People’s Campaign on four separate occasions attempted to enter the Capitol but were blocked by Capitol Security officers and Kentucky State Police. They were told they could enter two at a time with two more allowed to enter upon the exit of the first two.
The group said it was considering legal action but apparently has not filed suit thus far. The AG’s opinion is advisory and does not carry the force of law.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort; follow him on Twitter @cnhifrankfort.