The Kentucky Supreme Court is the highest court in our Commonwealth. Only extensive legal and judicial experience specifically related to the office qualifies one to assume its important duties. Judge Nickell’s lengthy and proven record of hard work and excellence regarding wide-ranging legal and judicial issues proves “beyond any reasonable doubt” he possesses unmatched experience for the job.
The quality of the Kentucky Supreme Court decisions and the wisdom of its leadership of the Judicial Branch depends on the legal and judicial experience, knowledge, and skills possessed by the justices voters elect to serve. Justices must possess an understanding of the judicial system from top to bottom.
In hearing appeals of decisions from the lower courts, justices sit as a panel and issue decisions or “opinions” on cases. A case is not retried before the Court. Appellate attorneys file appellate briefs and present oral arguments addressing legal issues the Court must decide. Criminal cases involving imprisonment of twenty years or more, life imprisonment, and the death penalty go directly to the Kentucky Supreme Court for review as a matter of right. All other appeals are heard by lower courts and are addressed by the Kentucky Supreme Court only upon its consent.
Most importantly, the Kentucky Supreme Court is the court of last resort and the final interpreter of the law. Further, it is responsible for establishing rules of practice and procedures for Kentucky’s entire court system, including the conduct and discipline of judges and attorneys. In addition, it oversees operation of the entire Judicial Branch, including preparation of its annual operating budget and biennial budget requests to the Kentucky General Assembly through its fiscal agent, the Administrative Office of the Courts.
Judge Nickell is seeking to represent the First District of the Kentucky Supreme Court which is comprised of 24 counties, including: Allen, Ballard, Butler, Calloway, Caldwell, Carlisle, Christian, Crittenden, Edmonson, Fulton, Graves, Hickman, Hopkins, Livingston, Logan, Lyon, Marshall, McCracken, McLean, Muhlenberg, Simpson, Todd, Trigg, and Webster.
“A fair and impartial judge must be guided solely by the Constitution and laws without regard to any personal perspectives and absent accountability to any governmental agency, political party, special interest, or other partisan organization.”
– Judge Shea Nickell
Rule of Law
“A government of laws, and not of men.”
– Founder & U.S. President John Adams
Our Founding Fathers sought to ensure the rights of mankind through the Rule of Law. The words “Equal Justice Under Law” are inscribed above the front doors of our U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C.
Simply stated, the Rule of Law refers to a legal system subject to well-established and clearly defined laws and legal principles applied equally at all times to all persons, institutions, and entities, public and private, including the government. Cases are to be decided according to the law and the facts rather than being based on any personal, partisan, or political agenda.
The Rule of Law requires that the law, itself, shall reign supreme, rather than any individual, group, or government entity. The Rule of Law pursues “liberty and justice for all” through laws which are publicly promoted, equally enforced, and independently and impartially adjudicated by the judiciary.
“When one puts on the robe and role of a judicial decision-maker and enters into the courtroom, he or she must take off any personal views, partisan agendas, or political perspectives and leave them hanging in the cloakroom.”
– Judge Shea Nickell
“Four things belong to a judge: To hear courteously; to answer wisely; to consider soberly; and to decide impartially.”
Judicial impartiality is the ability to weigh the facts of a case objectively and render a fair judgment based on the law, without bias or prejudice. Though the character and content of all judges and justices are shaped by their individual culture, creed, and values, the Rule of Law requires them to impartially interpret, apply, and uphold the law even when it conflicts with their personal beliefs, opinions, and wishes.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson once observed, “Something happens to a man [or woman] when he [or she] puts on a judicial robe, and I think it ought to. The change is very great and requires . . . a man [or woman] to get into an attitude of deciding other people’s controversies, instead of waging them.” Further, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia opined, “If you’re going to be a good and faithful judge, you have to resign yourself to the fact that you’re not always going to like the conclusions you reach.”
“If one is displeased with a judicial decision one’s quarrel is not with the judge or court but with the law, itself, and those whose function it is to follow constitutional procedures to make or change laws and implement or administer them.”
– Judge Shea Nickell
“All the rights secured to the citizens under the Constitution are worth nothing . . . except guaranteed to them by an independent and virtuous judiciary.”
– U.S. President Andrew Jackson
Judicial independence is a fundamental cornerstone of our political and legal systems. Our founders understood the Rule of Law depends on the ability of judges to apply the law freely and fairly. Judges must be free from “fear or favor” and not subject to improper influence from the other branches of government or from private or partisan interests. Judicial independence is secured when judges are free to make decisions according to the law without regard to political or public pressure.
U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, known as the principal founder of our system of constitutional law, noted “The greatest scourge an angry Heaven ever inflicted upon an ungrateful and sinning people was an ignorant, a corrupt or a dependent Judiciary.” And, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia declared judges “must sometimes stand up to what is generally supreme in a democracy: popular will” and protect “against the occasional excesses of that popular will”, preserving “the checks and balances within our constitutional system that are precisely designed to inhibit swift and complete accomplishment of that popular will.”
Under our nation’s separation of powers, the purpose of the judiciary differs from the purpose of the other two branches. Whereas elected legislators and executives represent the people, judges represent the law. In simplest terms, the legislative branch makes and changes the laws, the executive branch implements and administers the laws, and the judicial branch interprets, upholds or strikes, and applies the laws to cases pursuant to constitutional mandates.
Judicial independence benefits the public by protecting its right to have conflicts adjudicated by fair and impartial judges. Without it, public confidence is diminished and ultimately destroyed. The judiciary’s “only armor is the cloak of public trust,” and as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall observed “…the only source of power…judges can tap is the respect of the people.” That public trust and respect is rooted in an independent judiciary.
“My parents, pastors, professors, and profession instilled in me a passion for justice and a love for the law which transcends my personal perspectives and party affiliation. I am, first and foremost, an appellate judge who adheres to the Constitution and follows the law wherever it leads.”
– Judge Shea Nickell
Nonpartisan Judicial Elections
“Justices of the Supreme Court and judges of the Court of Appeals, Circuit and District Court shall be elected from their respective districts or circuits on a nonpartisan basis as provided by law.”
– Section 117 of the Constitution of Kentucky
A nonpartisan election is one in which candidates do not represent a political party but stand alone. The goal of nonpartisan judicial elections is to limit partisan influence, preserve the judiciary’s independence, and maintain public trust.
As an appellate judge who staunchly adheres to the Constitution and follows the law, Judge Nickell has always sought to vigorously uphold the Commonwealth’s mandate that judicial elections remain nonpartisan. He believes a fair and honest judge should be accountable to the people—all the people—for adhering to the Constitution and the law and not to any political party or partisan agenda.
The U.S. Supreme Court has held that states may regulate judicial elections more stringently than political elections to protect judicial independence and integrity and maintain public trust. Though a judge or judicial candidate retains the right to participate in the political process through party affiliation and voting, the Kentucky Code of Judicial Conduct imposes narrowly tailored restrictions on their political and campaign activities.
Judicial restraint requires a judge to limit his or her authority. Under judicial restraint, a judge conforms his or her decisions to the Constitution or a law rather than reinterpreting and recasting the meaning of its clear language. As his record of opinions demonstrates, Judge Nickell understands judicial authority was intended to be confined within the boundaries of a written Constitution and the Rule of Law.
Judicial restraint is opposite to judicial activism, which allows changing attitudes, personal values of justices, and perceived national or state needs to influence court decisions. Judicial restraint holds that courts—and especially appellate courts—are bound by the words of the Constitution or the original intent of its framers, or a combination of both.
A form of judicial restraint championed by the late U.S. Justice Antonin Scalia and which reflects Judge Nickell’s approach is often called “textualism” or “originalism.” This philosophy requires an honest reading of what constitutional framers and lawmakers wrote to determine the plain meaning of the Constitution or law. It focuses on leaving lawmaking to the lawmakers rather than the judge.
Justice Scalia argued judges—like all other government officials—must be servants rather than masters of the law and are not left to unreasonably define and redefine constitutional meaning. Under his approach, the Constitution was treated as consisting of words already having meaning and substance. As Justice Scalia explained, “A text should not be construed strictly, and it should not be construed leniently; it should be construed reasonably, to contain all that it fairly means.”