Partisan Defined


When I said "partisan" judges in a prior post ("Samuel Steinfeld and the Old Partisan Kentucky Judiciary"), I meant judges formally elected under a political party's label. That is correct as a linguistic convention but it may confuse readers that are more familiar with word being used as a synonym for "ideologue." With the exception of election contests (and cases that had become explicitly political--think Fletcher-Stumbo) that party label often did not mean much as regards the fairness of judicial decision making. Because of the non-ideological nature of Kentucky parties in the last part of the 20th century, whether a judge was slated Republican in 1966 usually meant less then than whether a judge is rumored to be a Democrat means in 2008. (Indeed, some may argue that parties are more ideologically pure now than at any time since the Reconstruction era).

In some cases, a Kentucky judge's regional origin mattered more than party. The Jefferson County GOP was more progressive than its Democratic counterpart on a wide range of issues in 1966, especially race. The Eastern Kentucky GOP, on the other hand, was still defined by its opposition to FDR and was far more conservative. In the larger Democratic party, all political philosophies were accommodated so being labeled Democrat meant little ideologically. What mattered far more to voters was the alignment of a candidate within the party's factions. For example, if a voter cared most about civil rights, party label was not conclusive for picking a champion. The question would be: is he a Clements-Combs Democrat (progressive) or Chandler Democrat (conservative)? If the candidate is Republican, was he allied to Louisville moderates who helped elect Republican Charles W. Anderson the first black member of the Kentucky House of Representatives, or to the Roosevelt haters in the "Old Fifth" congressional district in Southeastern Ky.

The worst aspect of slating candidates was not ideological bias; it was competence. Far too often perceived loyalty to the court house gang or political machine that controlled the process was the the primary requirement for judges wishing to run on the party ticket. Many candidates who went on to be excellent judges convinced the boss of their loyalty; unfortunately a sizable number of hacks did also.