The election is over. Republicans scored historic victories in Kentucky General Assembly races, securing a majority in the House for the first time in over a century and tightening their grip on the Senate.
This significant legislative shakeup could have a major impact on Kentucky’s legal landscape. It’s worth looking at some of the bills already pre-filed in anticipation of the 2017 legislative session to see what might be in store.
The most prominent piece of legislation pre-filed so far is the so-called “Blue Lives Matter” bill introduced by Rep. Kevin Bratcher of Louisville and co-sponsored by several other Republicans (as well as Democrat Dennis Horlander). That bill, which I’ve written about before, would amend Kentucky’s hate crime law to impose tougher sentences on people who target law enforcement employees when committing crimes such as assault or terroristic threatening. Bratcher initially admitted the bill was a reaction to the Black Lives Matter protest movement (though he has since qualified his motivation after being called out by constituents).
In a legislature that soon will include Representative-elect Dan Johnson of Bullitt County, it would be surprising if such a bill linked to racial resentment does not sail quickly to Gov. Bevin’s desk, where it will almost certainly be signed.
Rep. Bratcher also has pre-filed a bill that would “declare state sovereignty over powers not given to the federal government by the U.S. Constitution.” This sovereignty is already protected by the 10th Amendment, but redundant bills like Rep. Bratcher’s have become popular among conservatives resentful of the Obama administration’s use of its executive power and to various Supreme Court decisions striking down discriminatory state laws. The bill, though ultimately pointless, seems like a good bet to become law.
Also pointless is a bill proposed by Rep. Kim King that would reaffirm the precedence of federal and Kentucky constitutional rights over “the application of foreign law” in court proceedings. Though the wording is neutral, similar bills to this one have been lauded by conservatives as critical to the fight against Islamic Law, or Shariah, which supposedly threatens to usurp control of the courts in liberal hotbeds like Tennessee and Texas. Luckily, American courts do not, and will not ever, ignore the Supremacy Clause in favor of foreign religious codes, but that may not matter to the General Assembly, which could very well pass this bill anyway.
Other typical conservative initiatives, such as tort reform, “right to work” restrictions on union membership, and deep tax cuts, have not yet emerged among the bills pre-filed so far. But they are almost certainly coming.
By contrast, there are a number of bills pre-filed by Democrats that likely have no chance of passing at all under a Republican majority.
For the third year in a row, Sen. Reginald Thomas, D-Lexington, has pre-filed a bill to amend Kentucky’s “stand your ground” law. Under the current law, the original aggressor in an attack can claim self-defense if his or her victim responds with force greater than what the aggressor initially used. For example: If Bob slaps John, John pulls a gun in response, then Bob shoots John with a gun of his own, Bob can claim self-defense. Sen. Thomas’ bill would require the initial aggressor to actually break off the attack and retreat before being able to claim self-defense.
This bill originally was proposed in the 2015 session. According to Sen. Thomas, it was inspired by the death of Trayvon Martin, who was killed by George Zimmerman in Florida in 2012. Zimmerman was the initial aggressor but claimed he shot Martin in self-defense because Martin tried to smash his head into the ground as the fight dragged on. Zimmerman was acquitted of murder.
Sen. Thomas also has pre-filed a bill that would allow consolidated local governments (Louisville) and urban county governments (Lexington and many other cities) to “regulate firearms and ammunition to reduce gun violence.” KRS Chapter 65 currently prohibits cities from passing gun ordinances, leaving the power to regulate firearms solely in the hands of the General Assembly.
Another gun law bill has been pre-filed by Sen. Gerald Neal; the Louisville Democrat’s bill would make it illegal to allow a minor to access a gun that is not secured by a trigger lock. That proposal, which is well-intentioned but has significant weaknesses, will likely never see Gov. Bevin’s signature. And it is highly doubtful that any new restrictions on the use of deadly force or gun ownership in general will see the light of day in 2017.
The most unfortunate likely casualty of the new Republican regime in Frankfort will be Sen. Thomas’ bill to raise the minimum wage statewide. Because the Kentucky Supreme Court recently struck down Louisville Metro’s minimum wage ordinance, the only way to help working people in the state is to pass a law through the General Assembly. Kentucky’s minimum wage, which is the same as the federal minimum of $7.25, has not been increased since 2007. Considering one of his first acts as governor was to reduce the minimum wage paid to state workers, the likelihood of Matt Bevin signing a statewide increase appears to be nil.
Consider this just an early preview of the 2017 legislative session. With more than a month remaining before the Capitol is filled with fresh new Republican faces, the potential for major changes to Kentucky law — at least those supported by conservatives – will only grow. All reassurances of Democratic inclusion notwithstanding, of course.