A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Campaign conduct group raises concerns about Joe Fischer’s campaign for Kentucky Supreme Court

By Jack Brammer
NKyTribune reporter

A private, non-profit, non-partisan group that tries to safeguard the integrity of judgeship races in Kentucky is raising concerns about state Rep. Joe Fischer’s campaign for the Kentucky Supreme Court.

Fischer is trying to unseat incumbent Michelle Keller in the race for the Northern Kentucky Supreme Court district.

The Kentucky Judicial Campaign Conduct Committee said in a statement Wednesday that a majority of its 12-member group believes that Fischer is placing too much emphasis on campaigning as the Republican candidate in a non-partisan election.

Joseph Fischer

It said this could mislead voters into thinking they are voting in a partisan election and strengthen Fischer’s ties to his party. He has been a Republican state lawmaker from Fort Thomas since January 1999.

The chair of the conduct committee, Anthony Wilhoit of Woodford County, said it is not accusing Fischer of breaking any laws but “we are concerned about his trying to convey himself as a Republican in a non-partisan race.”

Wilhoit, a former judge on the Kentucky Court of Appeals and former chair of the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission, said he had sent the statement to Fischer but had not yet heard from him.

Fischer did not return phone calls from the Northern Kentucky Tribune to his legislative and work offices and home.

Wilhoit stressed that the committee does not make any election endorsements.

The committee raised these concerns about Fischer’s campaign:

• His campaign logo on his campaign website includes a bottom line identifying him as “the conservative Republican” in the race.

• A June 29 post on his campaign Facebook page thanked the Oldham County Republican Party for its “generous support.”

• On July 21, Fischer’s Facebook shared a post by the Republican Party of Kentucky’s 4th District, quoting from a public-radio news story:

It said:  “Joe Fischer, a Republican legislator known for his anti-abortion and conservative stances, is taking on nine-year incumbent Supreme Court Justice Michelle Keller in the race. Fischer, of Fort Thomas, penned Kentucky’s ‘trigger law,’ which sought to automatically outlaw abortion in the state after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade. He also sponsored an amendment to the Kentucky constitution that would ensure no abortion rights are guaranteed in the state’s fundamental document. A former prosecutor and appellate judge, Keller was appointed to the Northern Kentucky Supreme Court district in 2013 by Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear.”

The story did not mention that Keller is registered to vote as an independent.

The conduct committee said it believes candidates are responsible not only for their social-media posts, but for comments that remain on those posts.

• On a July 28 post by the Fischer campaign, a comment by Bernard Kunkel said, “Joe Fischer all the way. You must beat the pro-abort Andy Beshear loving Justice Michelle Keller.”

Kunkel provides no evidence for this assertion, the committee said, but
in a similar post on another judicial campaign’s page, he cited a Court of Appeals decision that upheld an Anderson Family Court ruling for a parent who wanted his children vaccinated over the objections of the other parent, based on the use of aborted fetal cells.

That is the subject of a complaint pending before the committee, the committee statement said, adding it has advised the object of the complaint that it believes Kunkel’s characterization is misleading if not inaccurate.

Justice Michelle Keller

Judicial candidates have the First Amendment right to publicize their political affiliations and their records in public, the committee statement said.  It noted that “some on our committee believe that unless the campaigning is misleading or inaccurate, they should be able to exercise this right without questioning or criticism from the committee – and that voters deserve to have information about the candidates.”

But a majority of the committee said it believes the First Amendment right to free speech is not compromised by speech questioning how that right is exercised, and that in this case, Fischer places too much emphasis on his partisan campaigning.

The committee has been monitoring campaigns in nonpartisan judicial elections for 16 years. It was formed partly in response to court decisions that expanded the First Amendment freedoms of judicial candidates, and the prospect of campaigns that made nonpartisan judicial elections more like those for partisan executive and legislative offices.

It said judicial candidates who emphasize their partisan affiliation are leading voters to think of judicial elections as partisan, when they are not, and that this trend will undermine the independence and thus the integrity of the judiciary.

Federal courts have ruled that non-partisan elections cannot deny judicial candidates, or others, the rights of free speech and association.

The conduct committee said Kentucky and most other states that select judges by popular election attempt to create safeguards that protect the independence and integrity of their judiciaries.

It noted that a rule of the Supreme Court of Kentucky says “A judge or candidate for judicial office shall not engage in political or campaign activity that is inconsistent with the independence, integrity, or impartiality of the judiciary.”

In its official comments on the rule, the Court says, “The role of a judge is different from that of a legislator or executive branch official, even when the judge is subject to public election.

“Campaigns for judicial office should be conducted differently from campaigns for other offices . . .  Public confidence in the independence and impartiality of the judiciary is eroded if judges or judicial candidates are perceived to be subject to political influence.”

The committee statement said, “Everyone in a free society should be able to expect their disputes that end up in court to be decided by an impartial tribunal that is not influenced by political affiliations.

“It is natural for voters to want judges whose expressed views or associations (political parties or special interest groups) indicate the candidate is inclined to agree with the voter on how a particular issue should be resolved.

“When judicial candidates emphasize their affiliation with a political party, they erode long-held American principles of judicial independence and fairness.”

Far more important than party affiliation in judicial selection are such considerations as knowledge of the law, life experience, fairness, the ability to listen, the willingness to put aside possible prejudice and bias, patience, humility, and a firm commitment to the rule of law, the committee said.

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One Comment

  1. David Cobb says:

    Appreciate still having the opportunity to read your independent coverage of the political arena. Old political tactic to create confusion or actually just lie.

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