- Associated Press - Thursday, February 18, 2016

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Candidates for judgeships can identify themselves as Republicans or Democrats, but adding conservative or liberal labels runs afoul of rules to keep politics out of judicial campaigns, Kentucky’s Supreme Court said Thursday.

The court set guidelines on the balancing act of campaigning for Kentucky’s judgeships without descending into partisan politics. The ruling comes amid an ongoing legal challenge in federal court claiming that canons strictly limiting political activity by judicial candidates violate free-speech rights.

Writing for the court’s majority, Justice Daniel J. Venters said Kentucky’s Constitution requires that judicial elections be nonpartisan in “truth and substance.” Those standards apply to judicial candidates from district and circuit courts to the state Court of Appeals and Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court said it’s permissible for judicial candidates to identify themselves as Democrats or Republicans. Taking it a step further, they can declare themselves as the only Republican or Democratic candidate for a judgeship, if the statement is true, the court said.

But campaign statements suggesting they are a party’s nominee violate the canons of judicial conduct, it said.

“For example, a campaign representation such as ‘I am the Republican candidate for the 16th Judicial Circuit Court’ is impermissible,” Venters wrote.

“There is no ‘Republican candidate’ for that office; the assertion is materially false and misleading. Political parties and factions do not select or nominate candidates for judicial office in Kentucky.”

Meanwhile, inserting political labels into a judicial campaign also is not permitted, the court said.

“The statement ‘I am the conservative Republican candidate for judge,’ transmits the message that the candidate is the formal nominee for the Republican Party,” Venters said.

He called that “an impermissible depiction by the candidate of his status in the judicial race.”

The case stems from the 2014 campaign when Robert A. Winter Jr., a judicial candidate in northern Kentucky, sent out fliers identifying himself as a Republican and his opponents as Democrats.

The Kentucky Judicial Conduct Commission notified Winter that it had received complaints that his brochures violated the Kentucky Code of Judicial Conduct. Winter responded by challenging the canons.

The canons also drew a challenge from Cameron Blau, another judicial candidate in northern Kentucky.

Blau said he wanted to send out brochures identifying himself as the only Republican candidate for judge or the conservative Republican candidate for judge, while identifying his opponent as the Democratic candidate or the liberal Democrat for judge.

Blau also indicated he wanted to host events for the local GOP.

Venters said Thursday that judicial candidates are not permitted to host political events.

Jeff Mando, counsel for the Judicial Conduct Commission, said the Supreme Court ruling was an important step in resolving the legal fight over the canons.

“The court has emphasized that our Constitution mandates that judges are to be elected on a nonpartisan basis, that there is a compelling interest that the state has in maintaining the integrity, the independence and the impartiality of the judiciary,” he said. “I think it underscores the fact that judges are not politicians.”

Justice Mary C. Noble dissented with part of the decision. She said she saw no distinction between a judicial candidate describing himself as the only Republican candidate and as a conservative. Neither should be permitted, she said in a separate opinion. Justice Samuel T. Wright III joined her.

“Our Constitution requires that judicial candidates be non-partisan candidates, and declaring oneself to be any kind of Republican (or Democratic) candidate adds partisanship to the actual candidacy, rather than stating in which political party one has membership,” Noble wrote.

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