Kentucky voters passed a measure in 1975 to streamline the state judicial system, creating a "'unified" court system.
Kentucky District Courts
Kentucky is divided into 60 judicial districts comprised of one or more counties each. Found in each district, these are the courts of limited jurisdiction in Kentucky, handling juvenile issues, misdemeanors, traffic violations, small claims issues up to $2,500, probate of wills, and domestic violence. These courts may conduct jury trials. Judges are elected by voters and serve four-year terms.
Drug courts may be found in district courts: these are alternatives to traditional court processes for people who may benefit from specialized treatment.
In 2015 there were over 660,000 cases filed in district courts across the state, and about half were traffic-related.
Kentucky Circuit Courts
These courts have general jurisdiction in Kentucky, handling felony cases, civil cases above $5,000, family issues such as divorce, disputes over real property, and appeals from district courts and some state agencies. They also hear appeals of verdicts from district courts and decisions made by state agencies.
There are 57 districts of circuit courts, each with one or more judges. Judges at this level are elected by voters. If a vacancy must be filled in the middle of a term, a name is selected by the governor from a list forwarded by a judicial nominating committee. Judges serve for eight-year terms and must run in general elections for renewal.
In 2015, circuit courts saw about 32,000 criminal cases filed in circuit courts and 33,000 civil suits for a total of more than 80,000 cases filed.
Family court is a division of circuit court. These courts handle adoption, divorce, termination of parental rights, and similar issues. In 2015, family courts saw a total of 68,000 cases filed statewide, including 27,000 juvenile cases and 14,000 domestic violence cases.
Kentucky Appellate Courts
This court is generally located in Frankfort, the state capital, but judges may conduct sessions in various locations across the state. Fourteen judges are elected to the appellate court by district. Judges serve eight-year terms and must run for reelection.
The court of appeals hears disputed verdicts from state circuit courts and "'interlocutory" appeals during trials in circuit courts. When considering an appeal, judges sit in panels of three, review the record of the disputed case and taking oral arguments from both sides. Their job is to determine if the law was applied correctly in the sentence that was handed down.
Kentucky Supreme Court
The Kentucky Supreme Court was created in 1975 and was singled out in a national survey for not generating notable decisions.
Circuit court trials that result in sentences of death or more than 20 years in prison are automatically reviewed by the state Supreme Court. The court also administers the state bar, including discipline of attorneys. The court decides if state laws are constitutional.
There are seven Supreme Court judges who are elected by voters in seven different districts and serve for eight-year terms. They must run for reelection at the end of each eight year term. If a vacancy opens up mid-term, the governor appoints a judge from a list of names created by a judicial nominating committee.
In the most recent year for which figures are available, the Supreme Court received almost 500 filings.
Kentucky Notable Court Cases
A well-publicized act of civil disobedience pitted the county clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky against the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015. After the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage was a right guaranteed under the Constitution, the county clerk refused to issue marriage licenses to anyone, based on her own religious convictions that gay marriage is wrong. The case quickly escalated to the U.S. Supreme Court, which issued a one-sentence denial of the appeal, essentially ordering the clerk to issue licenses to any and all couples who met other requirements for a marriage license.
In 2016 the Kentucky governor, who ran for office on a platform that included a pro-life, anti-abortion stance, won an injunction from the state court of appeals to close an abortion provider's clinic because, the governor said, the facility was not properly licensed. The clinic had previously fended off other attempts to curtail its practice and maintains that the license in question has been properly acquired.