FRANKFORT -- An extraordinary legal fight between Kentucky's governor and lieutenant governor over a staffing dispute was described in court Monday by the governor's lawyer as a minor disagreement among friends.
Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton, who attended the hearing in state court, disputed that characterization, bluntly telling reporters afterward: "My friends don't treat me this way."
Attorneys for Gov. Matt Bevin and Hampton spent about 90 minutes arguing over the lieutenant governor's lawsuit seeking to restore her two top staffers to their jobs. Her assistants were fired this year by Bevin's administration without her consent. Hampton filed the lawsuit last week, naming Bevin and the state's Personnel Cabinet as defendants.
Franklin County Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd didn't rule immediately on Hampton's request for an immediate order to reinstate her chief of staff and deputy chief of staff. He directed the two sides to try to reach an out-of-court agreement to resolve the conflict.
The dispute stems from the dismissals of Steve Knipper, Hampton's chief of staff, and Adrienne Southworth, her deputy chief of staff. The firings left Hampton with one staff assistant in her office.
During the court hearing, Hampton's attorney, Josh Harp, argued that Hampton should wield the authority to hire and fire her staff. It was Hampton who interviewed her aides and offered them the jobs, he said.
The lieutenant governor's leading task is to help the governor, she later told reporters, acknowledging "there's been very little tasking from his office." Hampton said she's still working on initiatives, including efforts to reduce youth suicides, and said she needs the two staffers back to help.
"Who in their right mind would decide it's a good thing to leave a sitting, active lieutenant governor with one staffer and carve off the people who were instrumental in helping her serve Kentucky?" she told reporters.
Steve Pitt, Bevin's general counsel, described the dispute as a minor one among friends. He questioned whether the lieutenant governor needs the two staffers back with only a handful of months left in her term, and added that it was the governor who hired them by signing executive orders to do so.
"How is there irreparable injury when the lieutenant governor's only duties are to attend nine board meetings?" Pitt said. "She has no other duties and responsibilities that have been proven in this record other than to stay alive in the event that the governor passes away."
The internal Republican dispute comes as Bevin faces a tough reelection bid in November against Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear, the son of Bevin's predecessor in the governor's office.
Four years ago, Bevin picked Hampton as his running mate. She made history as the first black person elected to statewide office in Kentucky. Bevin dropped Hampton from his reelection ticket this year, instead choosing state Sen. Ralph Alvarado. Hampton had lobbied Bevin to retain her as his running mate. Hampton has strong support among tea party activists, and some have come to her defense.
Hampton has been tight lipped about being dropped from the ticket, but she offered some insights Monday. She said the governor told her that he wanted someone with legislative experience on his ticket.
Hampton told reporters that she supports the governor's reelection. Asked if she worries her lawsuit will hurt Bevin's chances, she replied: "I don't know. The person who initiated these firings should have thought of that before doing so."
Both attorneys said they would try to comply with the judge's request that they try to resolve the dispute outside court.