Monday, August 23, 2004

Court says judge can stay

Lawyers had charged bias in case where attorney donated to judge

The Associated Press

LEXINGTON - The Kentucky Supreme Court decided that a family court judge running for re-election could stay on a case in which he ruled in favor of an attorney who donated $1,000 to his campaign and planned to hold a fund-raiser at his home.

Fayette County Judge Timothy Philpot, a former Republican state senator, said he did not do anything illegal or unethical. Kentucky doesn't apply any restrictions on campaign money given by attorneys to judges, but Philpot said that may need to change.

"I don't think it's fair to make me the poster boy for a bad system," Philpot said. "If the system allowed judges to be thrown out of every case where a lawyer had made a contribution to somebody's campaign, the whole system breaks down at some point."

His campaign treasurer, Robert Wier, said $20,000 has been raised, with about one-third of the amount from lawyers.

Questions of bias arose during a divorce case in which Philpot was presiding. The wife's attorneys, Michael Davidson and Republican Larry Forgy, learned about the campaign assistance given by the opposing lawyer, Republican Scott Crosbie.

They filed a motion asking Philpot to step down from the case, arguing he "prejudged the matter at hand" because of the men's political relationship, which also included Philpot donating to Crosbie's bid for Lexington mayor in 2002.

During an earlier hearing that took place even though Davidson gave notice he would be on vacation, Philpot decided some visitation matters involving the husband and his children and issued an order to the wife not to interfere, according to Supreme Court records.

The Supreme Court rejected Davidson and Forgy's challenge and turned down their subsequent appeal, saying there wasn't enough proof of bias. "I thought this particular circumstance crossed the line," said Forgy, a one-time Republican nominee for governor.

Crosbie declined comment to the Lexington Herald-Leader, citing the Supreme Court decision.

Bruce Davis, executive director of the Kentucky Bar Association, acknowledged the perception that attorneys want favors if they donate to a judicial campaign.

"I think that's a false assumption," he said.

Judge James L. Bowling Jr., Bell County Circuit Judge and a member of the state's judicial ethics committee, said "the problem with most judicial campaigns is that no one really cares except the lawyers. Fund raising for judicial candidates is difficult. It's always an awkward thing for a judge."

Philpot lost a bid for Fayette Circuit Court judge last fall, and Gov. Ernie Fletcher later appointed him to a family court vacancy. He faces attorney J. Ross Stinetorf in the Nov. 2 election to keep his seat.

Philpot said he has directed his campaign to refuse Crosbie's fund-raiser offer but keep his check.

State Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, said he hopes to push for legislation that, among other things, would provide public financing for all judicial campaigns. He said blind donations could also avert ethical dilemmas.

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