Tom O'Dell Smith

State Representative Tom O’Dell Smith is teaming up with the Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts to go to bat for families in Knox and Laurel Counties as they work to secure a second Family Court judge to serve the area.

On February 10, Smith filed House Bill 470, a proposed amendment to KRS 23A.045 to be effective January 2, 2023, and KRS 23A.050, “to add a Circuit-Judge to the Twenty-seventh Judicial Circuit; specify election schedule for new judgeship; request that the additional Circuit Court judgeship be designated by as a family court division.”

Smith said he filed the bill at the urging of the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC). The bill was co-sponsored by Reps. Derek Lewis, Robert Goforth, Regina Huff and Ed Massey.

“What it basically does, with it being Family Court, my main concern is that something I told you I was going to help out on, which was adoption and foster care. It actually hurts a lot of these families and these kids with having caseloads backed up and not being able to be heard for months and months. It would help free up some of these caseloads where these kids can get taken care of.

“When you’re told you’re the worst in the state, it is pretty bad, the caseload that is, and Judge Jones just can’t get it turned over fast enough. Judge Jones does a great job with what he is faced with. We need to help him with the burden he has with the caseload,” Smith said.

Family Court Judge Stephen Jones has served both Knox and Laurel counties after his 2014 election. According to the AOC, Jones has the single largest caseload of any Family Court judge in the state of Kentucky.

“It would mean the world to me, but I think it would mean even more to the citizens,” Jones said in an interview with The Mountain Advocate. “They’re the ones suffering because they have to wait so long for a court date... I can handle the long days, nights, but we really need it for the people. I’ve cleaned the docket up quite a bit in the last four to five years but they still have to wait longer than I’d like to get a final resolution to their case.”

Family Court deals with a variety of issues facing Kentuckians, such as divorce, spousal support, child custody, support and supervision, paternity issues, adoption, domestic violence and status offenses like truancy, runaways and more.

The Family Court system is designed in such a way that all “cases are presented in a single court, allowing the same judge to hear all matters involving a particular family,” according to the Family Court’s website. “This reduces the stress that can arise when individuals are shuttled between courts to resolve a variety of issues.”

According to the Kentucky Court of Justice website, Family Court serves over three million people in 71 counties in Kentucky. Jones’ load is over double of where his case load should be.

Chief Justice of Kentucky John D. Minton Jr. said, “This is an access to justice issue for the people of Knox and Laurel counties. Family Court Judge Stephen Jones has the highest workload in the state and is doing the work of 2.25 judges to handle this heavy docket. But in spite of his best efforts, the citizens in Knox and Laurel are still facing delays. Family law cases – such as divorce; child custody; adoption; termination of parental rights; and dependency, neglect and abuse – are terribly difficult issues for families to deal with and they deserve timely resolution in Kentucky courts. That’s why we’re asking the legislature to approve a new judgeship for Knox and Laurel counties.”

The overwhelming number of cases is not a reflection on Jones’ performance in the position, rather just increase of cases in recent years that come before the Family Court.

“The Family Court caseloads in Knox and Laurel County have skyrocketed to the point that according to the AOC study, Judge Jones’ caseload is a caseload on average statewide that normally would be handled by 2.24 judges,” said Gregory Lay, Circuit Court Judge for Kentucky’s 27th Judicial Circuit serving Knox and Laurel County. “Over two judges. That’s just not sustainable, so yes, I am for the AOC recommendation that Knox and Laurel counties get an additional Family Court judge to spread that workload out to a manageable number, which would ultimately benefit the citizens who have cases in front of the Family Court.”

Smith reflected on conversations he had with people during his campaign for State Representative last year. “There’s a lot of people that brought up adoption and different issues with kids, so I kind of get emotional when I hear about the stories because every one of them pertains to a child. So I think it’s important. This right here will free up a lot of the cases to where they would move faster,” he said.

Smith said the bill is now in the hands of Kentucky’s Senate. “One bill went over to the Senate for reorganizing, and I’m hoping that Senator Stivers can help get the judge put in on the Senate side and help get some relief.”

This is a developing story.

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Charles is a native of Barbourville, Kentucky. He has worked with The Mountain Advocate in various capacities since 2003.

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