Gov. Steve Beshear said a week ago Tuesday he would consider appointing Senate President David Williams to the open circuit judge seat for Clinton, Cumberland and Monroe counties.
That is, if his long-time political nemesis is chosen by the Judicial Nominating Commission for the position in the 40th Circuit.
Speculation has been high in Frankfort since the recent news that long-time 40th Circuit Judge Eddie Lovelace had died. Williams has not spoken publicly about whether he might be interested in the position.
He told The Courier-Journal just after Lovelace’s death that he did not wish to discuss the matter until after the funeral and burial of his friend. CNHI News was unable to reach him last week.
“It’s obviously premature for me to comment on any particular name,” said Beshear when asked the question by reporters at a press conference on another matter. “But I’ll consider any candidate that is put forward by the nominating committee.”
Beshear said neither he nor any emissary “that I know of” had spoken with Williams about the position nor had anyone spoken to him about the position on behalf of Williams.
Judicial vacancies are filled through a nominating process. A nominating commission in each circuit provides three names for a vacancy and the governor may appoint one of the three nominees to fill the remainder of any unexpired term. In this case, the new judge would not face voters for two years, making the appointment more attractive than sometimes is the case.
Williams has frustrated many of Beshear’s legislative proposals in the Republican Senate, most notably expanded gambling. Beshear has insisted the measure would pass if given a fair up-or-down vote and claims Williams is the reason it hasn’t passed.
Williams has always maintained the measure doesn’t have the votes to pass and he has not made it a Republican caucus position to oppose it, although he personally opposes expanded gambling.
Williams also ran against Beshear in the 2011 gubernatorial race, an election Beshear won by more than 20 points. Since then, the capitol has been abuzz with speculation that Republicans might choose to replace Williams as president when they choose new leaders next January.
But Williams said earlier this year he has the votes to remain president and said he plans to be in the Senate at least as long as Beshear is governor. He also has criticized Beshear harshly for earlier appointments to the bench and the Public Service Commission of two Republican senators in an effort to secure those seats in special elections for Democrats.
Because of a 2005 change in the state pension system, lawmakers can boost their pension benefits on retirement by calculating higher salaries from other jobs in state government, including judicial salaries. That makes such appointments attractive to lawmakers.
Williams’ Senate seat isn’t on this year’s ballot.
On other matters, Beshear said he hasn’t formed any final conclusions about how to address the state pension system’s unfunded liability problems, which are the focus of a special legislative task force working with the PEW Center for the States. He wouldn’t say if he supports one possible recommendation of the task force: issuing bonds to pay down that funding gap.
“I think any of the options that are discussed depend upon a lot of factors and one of the factors is how many of those options might be put together to come up with a potential approach to the unfunded “liability,” Beshear said. “I think it’s a little premature yet to conclude that any of those options are acceptable or not acceptable. I think we’ve got to look at a whole package eventually.”
He said it’s too early to say whether he’ll propose trying recommendations of that task force with a commission studying ways to reform the state tax code. Each has looked at taxing pension benefits, which are currently exempt under Kentucky law.
Nor would Beshear say whether he plans to call a special session to deal with either issue.
“That’s obviously an option,” he said. “But whether it will happen or not, we’re not at that point yet. We still don’t have any recommendations yet from either the tax reform group or the pension group.”