Legislation proposed to add Family Court judge for Laurel, Knox; Current judge is 'most overworked' in state

Nita Johnson, The Sentinel Echo, London, Ky.
·5 min read

Mar. 8—Resolving cases in the Family Court could soon see a shorter waiting time, pending current legislation in Frankfort.

House Bill 470 (HB 470) addresses the caseloads of circuit, district and family court judges with recommendations to add or decrease specific areas across the state. One significant aspect of that bill specifies a second Family Court Judge position to be added to the 27th Circuit, which includes Laurel and Knox counties.

That bill was based upon a study requested by the Kentucky Supreme Court, which reviews the caseloads of judges throughout the state. The results of that study shows the caseloads of judges in the three courts, with recommendations to add, re-appropriate and decrease judgeships in counties affected.

The study recommends that an additional family court judge be added for Laurel and Knox counties, which comprises the 27th Judicial Circuit.

Chief Justice John Minton explained the study and how its outcome affects the state's judicial system.

"The Supreme Court is responsible for reviewing the caseload of judges and certifying it through the legislature. We are trying to provide access to the court system by having the right number of judges in the right places," Minton said. "The study shows that Judge (Stephen) Jones is doing the work of 2.24 judges. He is the most overworked family court judge in the state."

Minton said that "population shifts" have an effect on the court systems by increasing or decreasing. For this area, adding a second family court judge would speed up the time cases go to court and are resolved — and thus improving the lives of the residents in the area.

"Family court is a place where people's lives are at stake and we need quicker resolutions," he said. "We see people at the worst times of their lives, whether it's a divorce or child custody or neglect and abuse case. A second family court judge would cut the caseloads in half and give people the resolution they need. These are families and children and they deserve to have faster resolution to their situations."

Despite the overload of cases, Minton said Jones "never complained."

"He just puts his head down and goes to work," he added. "He works long hours and does all he can, but we've got to have some extra hands here."

Jones said he was excited about the bill to add a second judge.

"We were supposed to get a second family court judge in 2017 or 2018 but it didn't happen," he said. "I'm not worried about my work load, but I worry about the people having to wait."

Family Court addresses divorce, child custody, support and visitation; adoption, termination of parental rights; dependency, neglect and abuse; child support, adoption, paternity, domestic violence, and status offenses such as runaways, truancy and out-of-control juveniles.

Jones, who holds Family Court in Laurel County on Monday, Tuesday and Thursdays and on Wednesday and Friday in Knox County, said he hears around 500 cases a week, on average.

"Every docket I have is full. We especially need help with the neglect and abuse cases — I hear 100 cases per county every week. I expect that caseload to increase, especially with COVID restrictions being lifted and children going back to school," he explained. "The children have not been in school and no one sees what's going on — the teachers and staff and social workers. When school is back, I expect we'll see more of those cases."

Jones said regardless of the type of case — custody, child placement, divorce, adoption or other situations — the people involved wanted action and resolution. But the tremendous overload of cases in this area of the state — which has been deemed the highest number of cases in Kentucky — often delays those resolutions.

"I've held court as late as 11:30 at night. I've even done hearings on Saturdays. I don't mind the hours — I just want the people to have a resolution. A new judge, in theory, would cut my case load in half and help resolve cases faster."

That same concern is held by Laurel Circuit Judge Greg Lay, who supports the addition of a new judge.

"The Kentucky legislature requested a study and it's been a long time since this was looked at," he said. "The number of cases in this area is glaring. It is almost impossible to imagine the caseload that Judge Jones has — he serves two counties like the rest of us (circuit and district judges)."

HB 470 is currently before the House Committee and is being supported by 86th District Representative Tom O'Dell Smith. Other Laurel County representatives on that committee are Regina Huff (82th), Robert Goforth (89th), and Derek Lewis (90th). This session of the General Assembly is entering its last phases, with legislators reporting back Thursday for their final six-day session. Should the bill pass the House, it will go to the Senate for a vote. If that measure passes, the new position will be on the ballot for voters in November 2022 when the next judicial election is scheduled and the new judge would begin the term in January 2023.

Minton stressed the importance of citizens supporting this bill to improve the quality of life for those involved with — and future — cases in family court.

"If this bill doesn't pass during this legislative session, the next chance we would have is 2030, as the judges' terms are six-years," he said.

"The public needs to let their representatives and senators know that this is a need," Minton added. "Reviewing the case loads we have undertaken shows how seriously overworked the family court system is there. I hope the people will make sure that their legislators know that they support the additional family court judge."

Legislators for Laurel County are:

House of Representatives:

Toll free number 1-800-372-7181

Regina Huff, 82nd House District — (502) 564-8100, Ext. 683; regina.huff@lrc.ky.gov

Shane Baker — (502) 564-8100; shane.baker@lrc.ky.gov

Tom O'Dell Smith, 86th House District — (502) 564-8100, Ext. 683; tom.smith@lrc.ky.gov

Robert Goforth, 89th House District — (502) 564-8100, Ext. 630; robert.goforth@lrc.ky.gov

Derek Lewis, 90th House District — (502) 564-8100, Ext. 654; derek.lewis@lrc.ky.gov

Senators:

Brandon Storm, 21st Senate District — (502) 564-8100, brandon.storm@lrc.ky.gov

njohnson@sentinel-echo.com