Kuprion v. Fitzgerald

Decision Date23 November 1994
Docket NumberNo. 94-SC-334-MR,94-SC-334-MR
Citation888 S.W.2d 679
PartiesPenny L. KUPRION, Appellant, v. Hon. Richard J. FITZGERALD, Judge, Jefferson District Court, Division 14, Appellee, and Robert G. Kuprion, Real Party in Interest.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court — District of Kentucky

Ted W. Spiegel, Thomas A. McAdam III, Louisville, for appellant.

Maureen Ann Sullivan, Louisville, for appellee.

WINTERSHEIMER, Justice.

This appeal is from a decision of the Court of Appeals which denied a writ of mandamus challenging the constitutionality of what is known as the Jefferson Family Court, seeking to have the "Family Court" declared unconstitutional and requiring the "Family Court Judge" to transfer the case to a division of the regular circuit court.

The issues presented are whether a district judge lacks subject matter jurisdiction to grant a decree of dissolution; whether the Chief Justice can grant district judges the power to hear dissolution cases; whether the Jefferson Family Court violates Sections 27 and 28 of the Kentucky Constitution; whether the appellant is denied equal protection of the law under the Federal and State Constitutions and whether the Court of Appeals erred in denying mandamus.

On April 29, 1993, Penny L. Kuprion filed a petition for dissolution of marriage with the clerk of the Jefferson Circuit Court. A decree of dissolution was entered on April 29, 1994. Pursuant to the computerized system used by the clerk, the matter was assigned to the Jefferson "Family Court" to be presided over by the Honorable Richard J. Fitzgerald, a Jefferson County District Judge. Claiming that the "Family Court" was unconstitutional, she moved the Family Court Judge to reassign the matter to Jefferson Circuit Court. Her motion was denied. She then sought a writ of mandamus to request that her case be reassigned to the Jefferson Circuit Court and that the Family Court project be declared unconstitutional. The Court of Appeals denied mandamus and this appeal followed.

Our task is to determine the nature of what has been established in Jefferson County and whether it passes constitutional muster. We cannot deem a legislative resolution or judicial order constitutional merely because it may seem in our view to be expedient, necessary or wise, or even if it enjoys strong popular support. The Kentucky Constitution is, in matters of state law, the supreme law of this Commonwealth to which all acts of the legislature, the judiciary and any government agent are subordinate. It is our responsibility to consider only whether the action meets or violates constitutional requirements.

The Kentucky General Assembly, on March 31, 1988, passed a concurrent resolution directing the Legislative Research Commission to appoint a Task Force to examine the need for and feasibility of establishing a Family Court or division of court. 1988 Ky.Acts Ch. 128, HCR 30.

It should be observed that members of the public and even the legal profession might easily be lulled into the colloquial concept of "Family Court." The better definition would be to label it as a "Family Court Project." It should be recalled that within district court there are already the titles of "traffic court" and "probate court," as well as "juvenile court" and "small claims court," which were created by statute. KRS 24A.110(1); KRS 24A.120(2); KRS 24A.130; KRS 24A.230.

The Task Force was directed to make findings and conclusions, including summaries of any legislation it might recommend. The 16-member Task Force included five members of the General Assembly and, after due consideration, recommended that rather than immediately create a Family Court in Kentucky, a pilot Family Court project be initiated; that the pilot project be implemented by the Court of Justice; that the Chief Justice select the district judges; and that the 1990 General Assembly fund the project, including implementation and evaluation.

The Task Force report in 1989 amplified the preamble to the concurrent resolution which established it by making ten findings, including the idea that fractionalization of family jurisdiction leads to a waste of time and delays, that it increases the time and expense involved in these cases and creates an inordinate delay between intake and final resolution.

The Task Force recommended to the Supreme Court and to the General Assembly that the Supreme Court establish by rule, a pilot project for the 1990-92 biennium with at least one urban and one rural location and that the General Assembly fund the project. The recommendations of the Task Force were first implemented in Jefferson County where, once a family dispute entered the system, all matters related to it were to remain with the one judge who was initially assigned to the case.

The procedure of using an experimental Family Court Project to study the feasibility prior to establishment by the legislature or constitutional amendment reflects the practice followed in Florida, New York and Virginia.

In 1991, the Chief Justice selected three circuit judges to be sworn in as special district judges and three district judges to be sworn in as special circuit judges. His order of March 20, 1991 contains the language "This appointment shall remain in effect until further order of this Court." The Supreme Court of Kentucky subsequently approved rules of practice for the Jefferson Family Court. Currently the Family Court project hears 75 percent of the actions for dissolution of marriage, and 25 percent are heard in the circuit court. In 1994, the General Assembly increased funding to permit the size of the project to increase from six to eight judges in July, 1994. It is expected that all new dissolution actions will be placed in the Family Court project rather than on the regular circuit court docket. The Family Court project continues to hear all adoptions, terminations of parental rights, dependency/neglect, paternity and juvenile matters.

The assignment of judges to the Family Court project is made on a voluntary basis. The district judge in this case, as well as all other district judges who have been appointed as special circuit judges, have the necessary constitutional qualifications to serve as circuit judge. Ky. Const. Sec. 122.

Penny L. Kuprion claims that a district judge lacks subject matter jurisdiction to grant a decree of dissolution of marriage. She cites Section 113(6) of the Kentucky Constitution and KRS 24A.110-130; KRS 406.021 and KRS 406.140. We must agree that a district judge in his capacity as district judge has no jurisdiction to hear a dissolution case. However, in this situation the district judges involved are properly sworn as special circuit judges pursuant to Section 110(5)(b) of the Kentucky Constitution in order to hear cases which fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of the circuit court. The district court cannot hear divorce cases; Only the circuit court has that power.

It is inherent in the nature of the judicial branch that in a multi-judge court, the actions of a single member including the Chief Justice acting in an administrative capacity are subject to review. The reviewing court can take notice of a presumption of regularity to be accorded to the actions under review which does not preclude a review of the substance and constitutionality of such actions. Here the actions and orders of appointment were not improper. Accordingly, we now consider the constitutional aspect of the actions.

We must reject her claim because Section 110(5)(b) in pertinent part states that the Chief Justice shall assign temporarily any justice or judge of the Commonwealth to sit in any court other than the Supreme Court when he deems such assignment necessary for the prompt disposition of causes.

She also argues that the Chief Justice may not use Section 110(5)(b) to appoint a district judge as a temporary special circuit judge in order to hear dissolution actions under the authority of the Jefferson Family Court project because KRS 26A.020 provides in part what is to take place when a judge is unavailable to perform judicial duties.

We disagree. The appellant can cite no authority for the proposition that unavailability of a sitting judge is the sole grounds on which the Chief Justice can make a temporary appointment for the prompt disposition of causes. This Court sustained the appointment of a retired circuit judge as a special judge to allow him to complete his caseload despite the fact that his successor had already taken office. Regency Pheasant Run Ltd. v. Karem, Ky., 860 S.W.2d 755 (1993).

The Chief Justice has also appointed a retired circuit judge as a special circuit judge to hear the voluminous asbestos litigation in Jefferson Circuit Court because it would otherwise clog the dockets of every division of that court. Huntzinger v. McCrae, Ky.App., 818 S.W.2d 613 (1991), permitted a chief regional circuit judge to appoint a special circuit judge from outside the region. Although it is unclear whether the regular circuit judge was unavailable to sit, that panel of the Court of Appeals found that the fact that the Chief Justice had not appointed the special judge was not a material departure from the statute and upheld the special judge's dismissal of a complaint.

It should be remembered that Section 109 of the Constitution established a trial court of general jurisdiction, known as a circuit court, and a trial court of limited jurisdiction, known as the district court, as the only trial courts in Kentucky. Those two courts, together with the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals, are the only judicial entities into which the single Court of Justice shall be divided. Section 113 of the Constitution provides that the General Assembly shall determine jurisdictional limitations for the district court and Section 112 provides that appellate jurisdiction shall be assigned to the circuit court as provided by law. The circuit court also exercises all other original jurisdiction...

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