Saturday, May 14:
When you think of the lawsuits that decide whether a candidate for public office is qualified under the terms outlined in state law, you probably envision those cases taking place in front of cameras in one of the fancy new courtrooms in one of the state’s biggest cities. Maybe in Louisville in the imposing Justice Center, in front of a judge we have all seen on the news before. And that is what I planned for the most recent candidate qualification case I handled. Jefferson Circuit Court, media ready to come watch, local concerned citizens attending and giving input.
But in fact, the case was transferred to a small regional courtroom. The judge is better known for being informal and decisive than for her TV appearances. The courtroom is so old that the ten-foot-tall windows still had original glass, wavy now with years of temperature changes so that the view of the small town outside was slightly distorted, as if reflected in a wading pool. The air conditioner in the hall was off, a paper sign stating simply “broke”, taped to it. Outside the district court clerk’s office, a young mother handed a toddler a can of pop, and a man with a pomaded coif read the paper. This could have been any courthouse in any Kentucky town at any time in the past five decades.
I had a hard time determining which of the four historic buildings in the town square actually housed the courtrooms. Every building was open to the public. Each of them had a desk downstairs where a sheriff’s deputy or two kept an eye on those coming and going. An older gentlemen sat at the entrance, chewing tobacco meditatively and looking down. People hurried in and out, on court business, or registering cars or taking papers to various offices. Some of the doors were slow to close and a breeze scented with the blooming trees outside crept in, softly flavoring the air.
It was time to start. And so we sat at the bench, five dressed up lawyers, two serious clients, and some witnesses. We waited for the hearing to begin. I am antsy before every hearing, jiggling my foot and lining my pink folders of papers up, just so, over and over. Opposing counsel puffed up his chest, made a neat note on his legal pad, and slapped down an imposing file of case law. We both thought we were so important and we were so full of desire to fight and to win.
The judge came in, sat down, and began to speak. Her voice trembled with passion and sincerity. This is a serious case, she reminded us, and our job here is also important. Voter rights means a lot to me. Candidates who want to serve the public are the bedrock of our communities. We change lives with these decisions.
And in that moment, the focus changed. This wasn’t, “Hey, that guy has more case law than I do.” It wasn’t, “Take that, I’m now the only valid candidate.” It was, instead, “We are all on a mission, and that mission is to make sure that, to the extent possible in the lives of we flawed humans, we are doing the right thing in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of the public.” The judge was right – this was an significant case for that important reason. We are so lucky to be able to run for office freely and without fear. We are so blessed to be able to speak our minds in politics and to vote our hearts at will. We forget what an incredible gift this is and that not every citizen of the world has these same opportunities. When you go to the polls next Tuesday, take a moment to thank everyone who made this possible for you. This is, as that wise judge reminded us, an important job.