A Kentucky judge has cleared the way for Republican Gov. Matt Bevin to appoint six administrative law judges to help ease a backlog of workers’ compensation cases.
The ruling by Franklin County Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd is a victory for Bevin at the courthouse, who has seen several of his executive orders restructuring state government struck down by the courts. Most of the rulings have come from Shepherd, whom Bevin has called “a political hack.”
Shepherd agreed Tuesday to end an impasse over the selection of six administrative law judges that decide workers’ compensation claims. State law permits the governor to appoint those judges, but he must pick from a slate of candidates recommended to him by the Workers Compensation Nominating Commission.
In June, Bevin abolished the seven-member commission and replaced it with a five-member committee. Most of the commission members had been appointed by the previous administration. Labor unions sued, worried that Bevin was trying to stack the court with judges sympathetic to employers.
Shepherd temporarily barred the commission from making recommendations to the governor, leaving the court with six vacancies for most of the year and increasing the workload of the remaining 11 judges. The Department of Workers Claims has at least 400 cases that need to be reassigned, according to Mike Swansburg, general counsel for the Kentucky Labor Cabinet.
Since then, four of the seven members on the old commission have resigned. Shepherd had urged Bevin to appoint replacements, which would have given him a majority of votes on the commission. But Bevin refused, insisting that his order abolishing and replacing the commission be recognized as legal.
On Tuesday, Shepherd said he could “see no useful purpose in delaying the submission of names to the Governor.” But he did not rule on whether Bevin’s executive order was legal.
“Today’s court order is welcome news, as Kentuckians were really beginning to feel the pain of not being able to move forward with their workers’ comp claims,” Bevin spokeswoman Amanda Stamper said.
Kentucky AFL-CIO President Bill Londrigan said he and his organization’s attorneys are still reviewing the decision.
“We’re certainly interested in making sure the workers comp system didn’t get any further backlogs,” Londrigan said. “But this still leaves open the constitutional issue regarding the governor’s authority to abolish a statutory commission and replace it with his own.”
Bevin has been aggressively restructuring state government since he took office in December, abolishing and replacing several state boards and commissions that oversee important industries and functions of state government. The most controversial were his decision to replace the boards of trustees of the University of Louisville and the Kentucky Retirement Systems. Both have been challenged by Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear.
Shepherd barred Bevin from removing Thomas Elliot from the Kentucky Retirement Systems board of trustees, but he later modified that ruling to say Elliott could participate in the meetings but not vote.
Shepherd also ruled Bevin was wrong to abolish the University of Louisville board, calling it a “dangerous precedent that invites the abuse of power.” Bevin has appealed, and this week Beshear asked the state Supreme Court to expedite the case by bypassing the state Court of Appeals.
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