Last week, Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice Joseph Lambert left no doubt that partisanship and his own personal interests are more important than living up to the ideals of the Roman goddess of justice. We have all seen the familiar symbol of Justitia — blindfolded and carrying a sword — which is often used to depict the fine balance of the scales of justice.
The action I refer to is a footnote Lambert dropped into a legal opinion in an unrelated case, asserting that governors are immune from criminal prosecution until they are impeached. Aside from the holding itself, the footnote had nothing to do with the case Lambert was deciding. Rather, it appeared to be gratuitously directed at the ongoing criminal investigation of Gov. Ernie Fletcher — the same matter Lambert has already disqualified himself from hearing because of a conflict of interest.
A number of lawyers I spoke to were outraged by Lambert’s maneuver, believing as I did that Lambert couldn’t resist trying to effect the outcome of our indicted governor’s criminal charges even after the chief justice has stepped aside. Lambert seems to invite Fletcher’s lawyers to raise this very argument in a motion to dismiss the charges, rather than on the merits in a trial where the public will finally get to see and hear the unvarnished truth. After all, isn’t that what Fletcher promised us all from the outset of this investigation?
Under Lambert’s standard, a governor who committed a heinous crime — let’s say he ordered the killing of merit workers instead of their firing — could not be arrested. The public’s only recourse would be a political act: impeachment.
Imagine such a procedure occurring the day after the legislature adjourned for the year. Not only could a murderous governor not be arrested and charged, but the public would be forced to wait until the following year, when the legislature convened again, before impeachment proceedings could commence. Under Lambert’s rule, a governor is always above the law. But this action is just one of several alarming ones Lambert has taken recently — things that for some reason have not been reported by the media.
Last year, an ethics investigation began over Lambert’s five-year involvement in a multi-million dollar appeal by a convicted felon Ross Harris, who months earlier made thousands of dollars in illegal contributions to Lambert’s wife, Family Court Judge Debra Lambert. Those donations came during the final days of her 2000 re-election campaign, and just months before Lambert himself cast a tie-breaking vote that allowed Harris to keep a $14 million jury award.
During that timeframe, Harris was convicted of illegally funneling thousands of dollars of nearly identical contributions to another judicial campaign. However, Lambert never stepped aside when the case came before him, and never advised either side that his wife had taken money from an actual party. He continued to participate in the case for five years, casting three crucial votes, without a peep about his obvious conflict of interest.
Sadly, the state’s feckless Judicial Conduct Commission showed it lacks teeth when it comes to policing its own judicial top dog. In its decision, the commission noted that Lambert admitted knowing about the illegal contributions when he voted in the case, but that he did not inform the parties or disqualify himself from the matter. Still, Lambert was not disciplined.
Nevertheless, despite an FBI investigation and a federal grand jury looking at Lambert’s actions, he refused to cooperate. So did those close to him; they took the Fifth when called to testify. That group includes Lambert’s former chief of staff, Jim Deckard, who is now Fletcher’s general counsel. The complete lack of cooperation stalled the investigation.
Lambert’s self-centered behavior blossomed this spring as he pushed for legislation to slash the salaries of retired judges running for other judicial offices. Of course, such legislation affected only three candidates this year. Coincidentally, one is his wife’s fall opponent. It’s difficult not to conclude that Lambert’s footnote was an attempt to help Fletcher, the man who used his veto pen to give Lambert the legislation he needed to inflict financial damage on his own wife’s opponent.
As a former judge commented to me this weekend, “Make no mistake, we are in a constitutional crisis.” He added: “The Court of Justice is in crisis, morale among the working judges is at an all-time low, and the people of the Commonwealth deserve even-handed justice, not political trickery.”
When will mainstream media start reporting on the corruption of Chief Justice Lambert and inform the public of yet another branch of our government run amok?
Mark Nickolas is a former Democratic political consultant and publisher of Kentucky’s most widely read political blog, BluegrassReport.org. Contact him at [email protected]