One of the cornerstones of any successful government is its ability to fairly administer justice on behalf of the community it serves. Here in Owensboro, we are fortunate to have a dedicated group of elected officials focused on protecting the rights of the residents of Daviess County. However, for a population nearing 100,000 citizens, those seven officials (two circuit judges, three district judges, and two domestic relations commissioners) can only handle so many cases each year.
According to a recent study conducted by the Kentucky Supreme Court to measure caseloads across the state, Daviess County was underserved with respect to its number of elected judicial officials. One of the main issues highlighted by this study, titled “Judicial Workload Assessment Study,” was the lack of a family court in Daviess County. According to the Kentucky Court of Justice, “Family Court gives cases involving families and children the highest priority, [so] these cases do not compete with criminal and other civil cases for judicial time.” Additionally, Family Court judges also handle family law matters that were traditionally decided in District Court, including divorces, custody disputes, child support and visitation, and adoption. In short, Family Court allows at least one elected judge to concentrate only on domestic relations matters, instead of attempting to juggle other cases, too.
Prior to January 2016, 71 counties in Kentucky were served by a family court, and Owensboro was the largest area in the Commonwealth without a family court judge. To be clear, the need for Family Court in Daviess County had been evident for quite some time. However, beginning in 2014, the movement for Family Court began to gain traction.
More specifically, in 2014, Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice John Minton certified the need for a Daviess County Family Court to the Kentucky legislature. With that certification, the legislature had to, by statute, create a new judgeship for the certified need. However, while the position was technically created, the legislature declined to fund it, meaning Daviess County wouldn’t see a Family Court judge in 2014.
In response to the legislature’s failure to fund the judgeship, Chief Justice Minton began a push to get the community behind the Family Court effort. Judge Jay Wethington, Chief Circuit Court Judge for the 6th Judicial Circuit, which presides over Daviess County, helped rally the necessary parties to advocate for Family Court in Owensboro. According to Judge Wethington, “This community came together at crucial stages in anticipation of the 2016 legislative session. Daviess County got the legislature’s attention with the help of the local CASA board and its current director, Sandra Bowman, Candance Brake and the Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, Madison Silvert and Economic Development and the Daviess County Bar Association.”
With so many local organizations on board, the state legislature took notice, and included the funding for a Family Court Judge in Daviess County. In practical terms, this means that the people of Daviess County will experience a more streamlined legal process when it comes to domestic relations cases.
Judge Wethington articulated the benefits of having a Family Court: “When Family Court is operating optimally, one court and one judge will adjudicate matters that are currently being handled by sometimes four different judges. Most importantly will be the family court’s ability to utilize CASA in making timely and life-changing decisions for children. Fewer court appearances with less attorney fees and loss of work are the immediate benefits to the litigants.”
Undoubtedly, the new Daviess County Family Court will have a positive impact on the families in our community. Its creation also demonstrates what the people of Owensboro can achieve when individuals and organizations with varying interests unite for a common purpose.