If you followed the mass arrests that happened at the protests sparked by the police killing of Breonna Taylor, you likely know who Ted Shouse is. Shouse, a criminal defense attorney of more than two decades, along with another local attorney, Courtney Kellner, organized a group of more than 100 lawyers to represent many protesters free of charge. He even represented state Rep. Attica Scott, who was arrested at a protest with her daughter Ashanti. (The charges against the Scotts were ultimately dropped, and Ashanti is currently Shouse’s campaign manager.)
Now, Shouse is trying to take the next step in his storied career: Last week, he filed to run to be the next Circuit Court Division 7 judge. He is not the only lawyer who represented protesters to be running for judge. Tracy Davis is seeking Jefferson County Circuit Court’s Division 5 seat.
LEO caught up with Shouse to talk about why he’s running and the systemic changes he envisions for the court system.
LEO: What made you decide to run for judge?
Ted Shouse: I’ve been a lawyer 22, almost 23 years now, and this seems an appropriate time, and given, particularly the events — both locally and nationally — of the last year, I thought that I had a voice that I could contribute as a judge in Louisville, and because I think that I have a voice I can contribute, I think it was incumbent on me to run.
You posted that your campaign is “dedicated to addressing the strains of our judicial system” and that seems to, as you insinuated, be more evident now than ever in the city. Can you talk about the system’s major flaws and what real change looks like? I know that’s sort of a big question, so feel free to take it in any direction.
Sure. First of all I’m not insinuating anything, I’ll say it out loud. I don’t want to be that kind of candidate, who avoids taking big issues head on. I definitely don’t want that. I want to be somebody who speaks as openly and honestly as I possibly can. So, I think what systemic change in Louisville would look like is a commitment to transparency.
When I was a lawyer, I had a death penalty case in which I discovered that there are no consequences for not showing up to jury duty, so I did research and discovered in the administrative procedures of the court, a procedure where a second letter could be sent to jurors that didn’t answer their summons and, in that case, that second letter increased participation, especially among economically disadvantaged people and people of color, tremendously. Because of that litigation, that’s now how jurors are summoned in Jefferson County. The procedure I made a motion for was granted in that particular case is now done in every case in Jefferson County. So, that shows my commitment to transparency.
I think what I wrote last year during the protests around police violence regarding how search warrants are obtained, and my suggestions for changes in how search warrants are obtained would go to transparency. I still continue to believe that the interactions between the police officers and the judges should be recorded and those recordings should be provided to the defendant as soon as applicable after execution of the warrant, and I believe that the judges should be assigned randomly to review search warrant applications. When I’m elected, I will push for that change.
I think that that search warrant issue could be addressed by a change in the local rules that just randomly assigns judges and the interactions are recorded and turned over after execution of the warrant, just like grand jury tapes are being down now. If they wanted to indict you today, they would put an officer on a stand in front of a grand jury and he would say he thinks Mr. Recker committed this crime and here’s why. You would be indicted and, after you were indicted and arraigned, then that grand jury tape would be given to your defense lawyer so you know what evidence was presented without you being there, to the grand jury — that’s what I’m talking about with search warrants.
And then, finally another commitment to transparency, would be… some years ago, maybe 10 now, our local judges passed a rule change that says that the ‘discovery’ in the case — that’s the evidence against the defendant — for years and years and years that discovery was placed in the court file where the public and the media could come and access that discovery. Some years ago, they changed the ruling. Now that discovery is not available in the court file. The public and the media have no access to what evidence exists against a defendant and so when a case settles in plea bargain before trial, if it’s resolved through a settlement, nobody ever knows what evidence was had in that case, because now it’s all kept secret. I would push really hard to repeal that rule.
Another way in which [we should look at] systemic change… is this. I want to establish a second mental health court in Louisville. We have one. It’s run by Judge Susan Gibson. So, it’s not some radical new or strange idea. I think our current mental health court could use some help, and could use somebody to help do some of the lifting. I would start a mental health court as soon as I took office. I would learn from the lessons that Judge Gibson has learned from. It’s like drug court but for people who suffer from serious mental health illness, and their case is taken out of the traditional prosecution framework and their case is placed in a mental health court where they get hands-on, substantive help from professionals. They ensure they go to their doctors visits. They take their medications. They’re given social services. If they successfully complete a course through mental health court, the case is potentially dismissed. That will also relieve some of the burden on the general prosecution of criminal cases, because it will take those mental health cases out of the regular docket.
Another thing that systemic change would look at, as you may or may not know, I’ve been the pro bono lawyer for the Bail Project ever since they came to Louisville. Bail reform is desperately needed to relieve overcrowding in the jail, but also to address the systemic inequities that bail creates. Wealthy people get out of jail because they can post their bond and economically disadvantaged people stay in jail because they don’t have any money. That’s not fair; that’s not equal treatment.
There’s a whole toolbox of non-financial conditions that could take the place of cash bail — court monitoring center, the day reporting center, the use of surety bonds, should they extend it broadly across Jefferson County. A surety bond is where, if you’re a defendant, and you’re in front of a judge and the judge says, ‘The bond is going to be $5,000,’ and you’re like, ‘I don’t have $5,000 and nobody I know has $5,000.’ Ok, ‘Is there someone who cares about you enough to come down to the court house and sign their name saying that they’ll make sure you make it back to court.’ And they’ll vouch for you. And, if you don’t come back, that person will owe the state $5,000. You would be amazed at how many people say, ‘Oh yeah, as a matter of fact, I have good friends, or an uncle or aunt or a mom or a dad or a wife or a husband who will vouch for me, and who will get me back to court.’ That would get economically disadvantaged people out of jail so they could fight their cases more expeditiously. And, bail, as it currently exists, is largely punitive, except in violent offenses. Obviously, the system I’m describing does not involve murderers and serious assaultive behavior. What I’m talking about is lower level offenses where the people are found not to be at risk to reoffend and not to be a risk to flee, and so let’s get them out of jail and get them back to a productive role in society and get them coming to court to fight their cases.
Another reason I’m running is because people, here locally, have lost faith in the court system. There’s poll numbers nationally that show faith in the court system dropping, and here locally, I know a lot of people have lost faith in the court system. And I think a different kind of judge, which I would be, could restore some faith and some transparency in the system.
What has representing protesters taught you about the courts and the system?
When I began, it was actually on the first Saturday. The first large protest in Louisville was on a Thursday. On Friday night, there were massive numbers of arrests. On Saturday, my good friend
Shameka Parrish-Wright [who is the community advocacy and partnership manager at the Bail Project and a mayoral candidate] asked me to go to the jail to see what I could do about the vast number of arrests. Of course, I did, and that led to me working with a lawyer named Courtney Kellner, and we helped each other to organize a group of volunteer lawyers.
So, what I learned is this: The vast majority of those arrests were unwarranted, and that’s not just my opinion, the county attorney has dismissed the vast majority of those arrests. That the police were faced with a chaotic situation, and they were arresting people catch-as-catch-can, overwhelmingly. I learned also, at the beginning, that bail is punitive because the first few days and weeks of protest, lots of people stayed in jail who shouldn’t have stayed in jail; they just had bonds placed on them.
I also learned that the lawyers of this community stepped up when needed. We had 110 lawyers volunteer. I’m very proud of the bar for answering that. I learned that a commitment to change still exists in our community. Most of the protesters were regular residents of Jefferson County who were seeking justice for a cause that they believed in. And I learned, fundamentally, a lawyer can make a difference. And the lawyers that volunteered all made a difference. And I’m very proud. I was inspired by the protesters, their bravery, their commitment, their resilience all inspired me.
The courts, like everything else, were rattled by the pandemic. What do you think the court system should learn from pandemic?
I think the court system, as a whole, across Kentucky, did about as well as they could. No one saw this coming. No one in the court system had ever faced anything like this before. I think, here locally, we could have been a little quicker to adopt Zoom. Telephone court was not ideal. But, we did the best we could with what we had to work with, and the courts did continue to function. There were lots of times were it was really barely functioning, but I don’t think they ever stopped functioning totally. So, I think the thing to learn is that we’re going to have to rely a little more on technology than we ever have before, but I think the other thing that we learn is that the technology exists to weather another storm like this.
Three people recently died in metro jail. Activists are calling for reduced incarceration. How do we achieve that?
Well, the running of the jail is exclusively an executive function, and our chief executive officer is the mayor, but there is a role for the courts to play in reducing jail overcrowding, and I mentioned it earlier — my work with the Bail Project, demonstrates to me that systemic bail reform would go a long way to reducing jail overcrowding. Clearly the jail has a personnel problem, and they’re going to have to hire more people, more officers, and they are going to have to do it quickly. But, the role of the court system in that would be to take a good, hard look at comprehensive bail reform, along the lines of what I was talking about a few minutes ago, of increased use of surety bonds, increased use of the court monitoring center, the day reporting center, which are organizations that keep track and keep tabs of people who are on pre-trial release. Using cash as the sole determinant of who stays in jail and who doesn’t is not only not fair, but it’s punitive and not predictive of people’s behavior. So, that’s what the courts.
Is there anything else that you want to add, either about the campaign or how to make the courts more equitable?
I’m looking forward to this very, very much. I’ve spent over 22 years, almost 23 years, as a criminal defense attorney. I got to say, I’ve found the events of the last two years inspiring, and that’s why I want to run. I want to recognize the inherent dignity of everyone who appears before the courts. That’s first and foremost — to recognize the dignity of all of us. I think that equal treatment under the law, equal application of the laws and the rules as they exist, could appear revolutionary and could appear as a change, but that’s what I’m committed to: recognizing the equality of everyone. And finally, I do believe that love toward our neighbors will go a long way toward making the court systems work more fairly. And I know that might sound naive, but I’ve represented very serious cases, murder cases and death penalty cases, for 22 years — I do not think I am naive. And I think a real spirit of love and equity and dignity in the courtroom can make a tremendous difference in the delivery of justice.
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