Criminal Justice

Judges at odds with county attorney say he told assistant prosecutors to seek election to their jobs

Several judges at odds with a Kentucky prosecutor say he recruited assistant prosecutors in his office to seek election to their seats on the bench.

There’s no dispute that Jefferson County Attorney Mike O’Connell adopted a new policy allowing prosecutors to run for judicial office without giving up their current jobs. And eight of O’Connell’s assistants have thrown their hats into the ring, the Louisville Courier-Journal reports.

But Judge Stephanie Pearce Burke, one of the incumbents, said she has been told O’Connell promised raises to those ran against her and other judges: She said she believes O’Connell recruited assistants to run against jurists with whom he has crossed swords, including four who forwarded to the Kentucky Bar Association a letter he wrote to the bench. The letter urged the judges to deal with what O’Connell described as “disingenuous maneuvering” by defense lawyers in drunken-driving cases. O’Connell has been contesting a private admonition in the ongoing legal ethics case over the ex parte contact, the newspaper recounts.

O’Connell and his prosecutors say it isn’t true that he recruited them to seek seats on the bench. His assistants say they decided on their own to run, and against whom.

A press release by the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, which is helping to defend O’Connell in the ethics case, links to a copy of the letter (PDF) at issue in that matter. The ACLU says the rule against ex parte contact should not be applied under the circumstances, because the county attorney was seeking a procedural rule change—as he has a First Amendment right to do—rather than commenting on a pending case.

O’Connell, who has waived confidentiality, said in the release that he acted properly. “To suggest that an elected prosecutor, or any licensed attorney, cannot send a letter suggesting a rule change directly to those who are responsible for making those decisions is simply wrong.”

Judges in the county earn more than $112,000 annually. Prosecutors make between $46,000 and $76,000, the newspaper notes.

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