Jefferson County contains about 17 percent of the state’s population, but the local courts annually handle more than 20 percent of Kentucky’s court cases. Now, for the first time since their creation more than 30 years ago, the Jefferson District Courts are being extensively reorganized.
Kentucky’s four-tier court system (Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, Circuit Courts, District Courts) was established by the passage of the Judicial Article to the Kentucky Constitution in 1975, which went into effect July 15, 1976. Prior to that time, Kentucky had a multiplicity of Magistrate, Circuit, and City courts. Judges were not required to have any legal experience (or even be lawyers!), and many 5th and 6th-class cities held “traffic court” on card tables, in someone’s garage or basement. Needless to say, the 1976 court improvements were generally well-received.
Now, the Jefferson District Court criminal dockets are being completely revamped; with changes to be effective Aug. 1. At a press conference today, at the Judicial Center at 7th and Jefferson Streets, court officials announced the scheduling modifications that have been in the planning stage for more than two years.
Supreme Court Justice Lisabeth Hughes Abramson, who represents Jefferson County, opened the news conference, and told those in attendance, "Change is never easy, but sometimes change is necessary." Jefferson Chief District Judge Sean R. Delahanty said “After two years of careful planning and often lively discussion, Jefferson District Court will be getting the overhaul it needs. Our judges accepted the challenge to reform the system and I’m especially pleased that this plan has the support of our partners in the legal and law enforcement communities. We’re working hard to prepare everyone for the transition and are looking forward to giving people a much improved experience when they come to Jefferson District Court.”
Judge Delahanty explained that 10 of the 17 District Court judges will be assigned to criminal dockets, with each having five dockets in the morning and five in the afternoon. The other seven district judges will handle the civil dockets. Justice Abramson suggested that the new schedules will alleviate overcrowding and wait time and better balance court dockets.
The plan is for the morning criminal dockets to include complex cases where police officers, attorneys, and witnesses will be involved; with the afternoon dockets to be used for hearings on simpler matters, such as traffic citations and bad check cases. Colonel John Aubrey, the Jefferson County Sheriff added, "By moving 45% of case load that shows up in the morning to the afternoon, those of you that have to enter through our security checkpoint won't be in such long lines, maybe they'll go a little faster."
Under the new system, criminal cases will be divided alphabetically among the judges so each has approximately the same volume. "I think you're going to see a real great court system evolve out of this. And it's going to continue to evolve. It must or it is not going to be able to serve citizens. It has to evolve," observed Jefferson County attorney Mike O'Connell. Also appearing at the press conference were Chief Justice of Kentucky John D. Minton Jr., and Jefferson Circuit Court Clerk David L. Nicholson.
Judge Delahanty summed up the hopes of the planners, by saying, "I think the community will be proud, as we are proud of the work we have done in improving the way we are delivering justice for those who come before District Court."