Summer Reading: Kentucky History and Politics for the Young Lawyer


I had a pleasant conversation with a young lawyer who has recently joined the Beshear administration. He, like many young attorneys employed by state government entities (a category that can include anything from a sewer district to a school board), was somewhat surprised by the number of unresolved Kentucky constitutional issues that surround the matters he’s asked to research. Moreover, even as a Kentuckian, he was unprepared (by his legal training) for the way that the commonwealth’s political history shaped, framed and explained the law. This is nothing new; I hear similar things from former students all the time. Law schools do a good job teaching the law; the context is another matter.* And law and politics in Kentucky are "the damnedest," to paraphrase James H. Mulligan's famous poem.

So for this new gov'ment lawyer's benefit, and others similarly situated, I offer a summer reading list (click the titles to link to places where you can buy them):

Hambleton Tapp and James C. Klotter, Kentucky : Decades of Discord, 1865-1900. (Frankfort: Kentucky Historical Society, 1977).

Without an understanding of late nineteenth century Kentucky, many provisions of our 117-year-old constitution are inexplicable. The 1891 charter was born in a time of great fervor. The state was caught up in the Populist movement and many of the framers were highly suspicious of special interests and corporations, especially the dominating force of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad Company. They wanted the constitution to protect workers by making sure they were paid and that they could sue for workplace injuries. Tapp and Klotter vividly describe these times and how they impacted both the constitution and the political institutions that followed.

James C. Klotter, Kentucky : Portrait in Paradox, 1900-1950. Frankfort, KY: Kentucky Historical Society, 1996.

Klotter continues the story (and the titular alliteration) from where he and Tapp left off. The key theme of this era was how Kentucky’s political system grappled with the changes wrought by the great depression and the increasing role of government, and ultimately, failed. As a result, the state fell behind in education and industrial diversity, ill-served by a Democratic party seemingly permanently crippled by factionalism and by politicians too eager to avoid tough choices. (Lowell H. Harrison and Klotter’s A New History of Kentucky (Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 1997) is more of a college history text than a summer read but I’d recommend its later chapters as a reference for the period from 1950 to the end of the 20th century).

John Ed Pearce, Divide and Dissent : Kentucky Politics, 1930-1963. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1987.

A former political reporter and columnist (with service on both the Courier-Journal & Times and the Lexington Herald-Leader), John Ed Pearce is an excellent writer who cannot help but be entertaining. This book covers the main period of bitter factionalism in the Democratic Party between the progressive Rhea-Clements-Combs wing and the more conservative faction controlled by Happy Chandler. Pearce was a partisan in some of these fights, writing speeches for Combs while covering them as a reporter, but that adds to the feeling for the era. (For fun, and perhaps a little insight into the often raucous history of local politics in Kentucky, I'd also recommend Pearce's Days of Darkness: The Feuds of Eastern Kentucky, 1994).

Penny M. Miller, Kentucky Politics & Government: Do We Stand United? (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994)
Malcolm Edwin Jewell and Penny M. Miller, The Kentucky Legislature: Two Decades of Change (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1988).

Despite their age, these two books by UK political science professor Penny Miller (state treasurer Jonathan Miller’s mom), are the best introduction to the Kentucky political system in print and they help to bring the political history of the state up to date. The Kentucky Legislature is particularly valuable for describing the body’s coming-of-age in the late 1970s and early 1980s when it emerged as an independent branch (out from the subservience to the governor that was typical for most of the 20th century). Do We Stand United? (still used at both UofL and UK in poli sci classes), gives a mixed assessment of how Kentucky governors and legislative leaders have adapted to the legislature's new-found power and responsibility. Both books cry out for new editions that include lessons from the Patton & Fletcher administrations—do you hear me, University Press of Kentucky?

Kurt X. Metzmeier, Michael Whiteman and Jason Nemes, United At Last: The Judicial Article and the Struggle to Reform Kentucky's Courts (Frankfort, Ky.: Court of Justice, 2006).

A little log-rolling here, but this book is the only published account of the activities leading up to the 1975 constitutional amendment vote that established the Kentucky Court of Justice as a fully equal branch of government. The measures taken to implement the reforms and establish the branch's independence are also discussed. (LEGAL WARNING: We tried to keep it readable, although I still haven't convinced my own mother that a book on court history can be light reading. So if you're reading poolside, make sure there is a lifeguard around in case you nod off and fall into the water).

Finally, I’d recommend every bright young person entering government read Tracy Campbell, Short of the Glory: The Fall and Redemption of Edward F. Prichard, Jr. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998) as a cautionary tale as to what can happen when partisan enthusiasm outruns ones ethics training. Pritchard was a Harvard educated protégée of Felix Frankfurter and young New Dealer who returned to his native Bourbon County only to ruin his career in an election scandal. The book recounts Prichard’s early fall and his long battle to recover his career and good name as an educational reformer (the Prichard Committee that was so important in marshaling support for the Kentucky Education Reform Act was led by "Prich").


In a later post, I’ll give my poolside recommendations for entertaining books on Kentucky legal history…


* The University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law does require that students take a designated "perspectives" course. I teach American legal history as a perspective and try hard to add this context to both national and Kentucky law. Many law schools do not have this requirement; some do not even offer legal history.