Person voting

2:44 p.m. EDT August 14, 2015
The Courier Journal
By Andrew Wolfson, @adwolfson

One of the candidates calls it the “basement level of the practice of law,” but 22 lawyers are vying to take up residence there.

A huge field of candidates, including two former judges, seven prosecutors, a former state representative and the Kentucky state treasurer, has filed to run for the $112,668-a-year District Court seat vacated by the retirement of Judge Michelle Stengel.

“Everybody in Louisville was running, and I didn’t want to be left out,” said perennial candidate C. Fred Partin, one of the filers.

The election isn’t until November, but the fate of many of the candidates may have been determined Thursday when a random draw for ballot position was held.

“If you are in the auxiliary gate — the bottom 15 — your chance of winning is diminished,” said District Judge Sean Delahanty, borrowing a horse racing analogy.

“Ballot position is very important,” said Delahanty, who won re-election last year with no opposition.

The top position went to attorney Dawn Elliott, a member of the legal team that won the gay marriage case. State Treasurer Todd Hollenbach drew the sixth position, while Bob Heleringer, the former state representative, will be listed 18th and Assistant County Attorney Erin White last.

“If it weren’t for bad luck,” Heleringer said, “I would have no luck at all.”

Experts and the candidates themselves say the vacancy is attractive because the winner won’t have to run in a primary — “It’s winner take all,” Delahanty said — and will serve virtually a full four-year term.

The practice of law also has become so competitive — especially in district court — that it makes a judgeship’s guaranteed salary more enticing, Delahanty and others say.

Such programs as Drive Safe Louisville, the county attorney’s traffic school, and a state law allowing police to cite rather than arrest low-level drug offenders have taken fees away from criminal defense lawyers, Delahanty said.

“For some of the fringe lawyers who are running, this would be a step up,” said Paul Gold, who has a large drunken-driving practice. “The reality is that a number of people are not as successful in their practice as they would hope.”

For Hollenbach, the race offers a chance to continue collecting a state paycheck: His term in his $115,594-a-year job expires in December. and he is prohibited from seeking another term.

In an interview, Hollenbach said he didn’t know about the vacancy until he read about it a few weeks ago in the newspaper. But he says he’s long been interested in the bench — he ran unsuccessfully for District Court in 2004. He admitted he has only a “modicum” of experience in that court but says there’s “no better place to see the impact of your decisions on people’s lives.”

“It’s about public service, first of all,” he said of his decision to run.

Using another horse racing term, Heleringer, an equine law expert, calls Hollenbach the “chalk” — or favorite — in the race, citing his name recognition; his father was the county judge-executive and commonwealth’s attorney, and the younger Hollenbach has twice won statewide races.

“But I’d like to think I have a name, too,” said Heleringer, who served 11 terms in the House and says he’s practiced in every division of District Court since it was founded in the 1970s.

“It is the basement level of the practice of law, but those people’s cases count, too,” said Heleringer, whose editorial column in The Courier-Journal will be suspended until the election.

Delahanty said as many as five candidates could win.

Other candidates with well-known names include former District Judges Judith Bartholomew and James Michael Green as well as Michael Leibson, the nephew of the late Supreme Court Justice Charles Leibson.

Besides White, the assistant county attorneys running are Andre Bergeron, Sandy Berman, Josephine Layne Buckner, Susan Jones, Benjamin Wyman and J.P. Ward; Bergeron, Berman, Buckner and Jones ran for the district bench last year.

Bergeron admits he was blindsided by Hollenbach’s entry in the race but says he’s not discouraged. “I am already out there,” the prosecutor said. “I have signs, billboards and I just ran last year.”

Other candidates include Elliott; Robert Florio, who won an acquittal in 2012 for a Trinity High School teacher accused of sexually abusing a student; and Daniel Alvarez, a bilingual immigration lawyer and former public defender who has represented immigrants in district court.

Danny Karem, Ellie Garcia Kerstetter, Chuck Rogers and Ron Schwoeppe round out the field.

Partin, the perennial candidate, who says he can’t remember how many times he has sought judicial office, said his previous runs for judge have landed him legal business. But he said that’s not his goal this time. At age 70, after practicing for 44 years, including as a federal prosecutor, he says he’s virtually retired.

“I have always aspired to be a judge, and this would top off my career,” he said.

Reporter Andrew Wolfson can be reached at (502) 582-7189

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