History of Citizens For Better Judges
With the passage of the Judicial Article on November 4, 1975, Kentucky’s court system underwent extensive reform and modernization. The many changes included the construction of a unified, centralized court system with exclusive judicial power vested in one Court of Justice consisting of four tiers, to wit: a Supreme Court, a Court of Appeals, a Circuit Court of general trial jurisdiction and a District Court of limited trial jurisdiction. Of these courts, the District Court had perhaps the most immediate and far-reaching impact on the court system in that, as the lowest and often entry level point in the system, it is the court with which the public has most contact and the one which replaced and absorbed the then existing hodgepodge of Quarterly, Police, Magistrate, Probate, Traffic and Juvenile courts.
In Jefferson County, this translated into the creation of 23 district court judgeships and, combined with the concomitant merger of the circuit court chancery, common pleas and criminal branches into 16 divisions of Jefferson Circuit Court, a total of 39 judicial positions which needed to be filled on a regular and continuing basis. At the same time, in order to increase the professionalism and independence of the judiciary, the Judicial Article required judges filling these positions to serve full-time and prohibited them from running for other elective offices as well as from holding positions in a political party or organization. However, despite the numerous innovations and reforms contained in the Judicial Article, it failed to fundamentally change what many consider to be an unreliable and unsound judicial election process in Kentucky. While the Judicial Article included features of merit selection in filling vacancies on the bench between elections, the ultimate method for judicial selection in Kentucky remains popular election, albeit in non-partisan races. This continues to be the case notwithstanding the growing trend toward merit selection and appointive systems designed to counteract the soaring costs and potential conflicts in judicial elections which threaten the quality, integrity and independence of the judiciary.
Confronted with a less than effective selection method for ensuring a competent, well-qualified judiciary, and given a substantially enlarged number of judicial seats up for election, a group of bar leaders sponsored a public meeting in January, 1983 to discuss uniting Louisville’s lawyers in a campaign to elect the most qualified judicial candidates. From that meeting emerged an organization which eventually came to be known as Citizens for Better Judges (“CBJ”). Its stated purpose was and is a commitment to the proposition that the public is entitled to a competent, conscientious and professional judiciary. The members of the Citizens for Better Judges agreed to dedicate their time, energy and financial resources toward that purpose and make an effort to remove the financial and organizational considerations that discourage legitimate candidates from pursuing election to the bench. Additionally, CBJ resolved to eliminate partisan politics, personal affiliation and vested self-interest as factors in the election of the judiciary.