Kentucky's Democratic attorney general warned the state's highest court on Friday that the accreditation of the state's public colleges and universities would be at risk if they don't take his side against the Republican governor.
But an attorney for Republican Gov. Matt Bevin called Andy Beshear's argument "poppycock." He told the justices they should dismiss Beshear's lawsuit and vacate a lower court's judgment that the governor broke the law when he abolished the University of Louisville's board and replaced its trustees with an executive order last year.
What was supposed to have been a 30-minute hearing stretched more than an hour in a courtroom packed with political aides from both parties as two of Kentucky's top politicians faced off before the Supreme Court for the second time in a year.
Ultimately, Bevin got his wish for a new board at the university after the legislature convened and the Republican majority approved his choices under a new law. That's why a ruling from the Kentucky Supreme Court in this case likely won't affect the new board.
But Beshear is asking the court to declare Bevin's original order illegal and to prevent him from doing it again. If he's successful, it would be his second legal victory against Bevin and would be likely fodder for a potential campaign for governor in 2019.
If Bevin wins, it would bolster the governor's argument that Beshear has wasted time filing frivolous lawsuits against him.
Bevin replaced the board because he said the university needed a "fresh start" after a series of scandals and because the board violated state law by not having proportionate representation of racial minorities and political parties.
In issuing his executive order, Bevin relied on a state law, KRS 12.028 , that lets the governor make temporary changes when the legislature is not in session. The legislature then reviews those changes when they reconvene. If they don't act on them, the changes expire.
Following Bevin's order, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges put the university on probation for one year. The commission said Bevin interfered with the boards' decisions and did not use a "fair process for the dismissal of board members."
"If the court were to rule the governor has that power, then every single university, every single one in Kentucky has accreditation issues when they come up for that next accreditation," Beshear said.
"With all due respect to the attorney general, I think that's poppycock," Bevin's attorney Steve Pitt said.
He noted the state legislature passed a law earlier this year setting up a process for the governor to abolish and replace university boards. He said the law requires Senate confirmation of the governor's board appointments, protecting the universities from undue political influence. And he pointed to a letter from the commission in May indicating the school was being investigated for other issues, including its financial management.
Pitt asked the justices to dismiss the case, saying there is nothing for them to decide. When the new Republican majority in the state legislature convened earlier this year, they passed a law replacing the university's board of trustees. That law superseded Bevin's executive order.
That's why Pitt says the court would be wasting its time analyzing whether Bevin's order was legal, because it "would have no practical legal effect and would be nothing more than the settlement of an argument or difference of opinion."
Beshear says the new laws don't matter, because Bevin has been ignoring state laws and will continue to do so unless the court stops him.
Justice Lisabeth Hughes said she tended to agree with Bevin that the case was moot because of the new laws passed by the legislature. But she said she was concerned Bevin could simply ignore the new laws in the future, which would mean the court should step in with a ruling.
Pitt said that could not happen because the new law passed by the legislature would take precedence.