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Kentucky Supreme Court disqualifies Kulkarni in state House race

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Kentucky Supreme Court disqualifies Kulkarni in state House race

Jun 07, 2024 | 5:16 pm ET
By Jack Brammer
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Kentucky Supreme Court disqualifies Kulkarni in state House race
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Rep. Nima Kulkarni, D-Louisville, (LRC Public Information)

Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice Laurance B. VanMeter issued a one-page order Friday afternoon that said incumbent state Rep. Nima Kulkarni of Louisville is disqualified as a candidate in this May’s Democratic election for the 40th House district.

Meanwhile, a Shelby County Circuit judge was waiting on the Supreme Court order in the Kulkarni case to determine how to handle a similar lawsuit filed against Democrat Richard Henderson, the first Black candidate to run for the state House’s 58th District. That seat is now held by Republican Jennifer Decker, director of the Operation Care store in Shelbyville.

Shelby Circuit Judge Michelle Brummer, who held a hearing Friday morning on the Henderson case, had no immediate comment after the Supreme Court ruling on Kulkarni.

The Supreme Court order in the Kulkarni case came one day after the state’s highest court held a hearing on her eligibility to run in the May primary election. She handily won the primary election and had no opposition for the November general election.

VanMeter’s order said a majority of the court upholds the decision by the Kentucky Court of Appeals that Kulkarni should be disqualified from the race.

He said the order was issued for benefit of the parties involved and that it will issue an opinion “in due court.” The court is scheduled to release several rulings next Thursday.

It is not clear what will be done to make sure the Jefferson County district has a state representative for the next two years, beginning Jan. 1.

A possible scenario is that with no candidates both political parties in the district will have to field candidates to run in a special election.

Kulkarni’s attorney, James Craig of Louisville, said she would be interested in that.

So would Democrat Dennis Horlander, who lost to Kulkarni in the 2018 and 2020 Democratic primaries in he the 40th House District, said his attorney, Steven Megerle of Covington.

Horlander filed the lawsuit challenging Kulkarni’s eligibility. He said her candidacy papers had to be signed by two witnesses who are Democratic voters in the 40th District.

At the time of signing, one witness was a registered Republican and changed her registration after the filing deadline. Kulkarni previously testified she thought the voter was a registered Democrat and only later became aware of the issue.

Megerle said Kulkarni could not run in a special election for the seat because a new law approved by this year’s General Assembly — House Bill 580 — would make her ineligible because she is a disqualified candidate. The law says that disqualified or defeated primary candidates cannot be general election candidates unless there is a vacancy.

“I would urge her not to go down that route because it would be vigorously litigated,” said Megerle.

But Craig, Kulkarni’s attorney, said he disagrees with Megerle’s interpretation of that election law.

“She would be eligible to be a candidate if there is a special election,” he said.

Shelby County eligibility case

The candidacy eligibility case in Shelby County is similar to the Kulkarni case.

Democratic House candidate Henderson was in Shelby Circuit Court Friday morning to fight legal challenges to remove him from the ballot because of alleged problems with his candidacy paperwork.

Shelby County Judge-Executive Dan Ison, a Republican, and Democrat Janrose Stillwell, a Shelby County citizen, filed a lawsuit April 25 against Henderson, claiming the witness signatures for Henderson’s candidacy papers were not proper.

Shelby Circuit Judge Brummer, after a 25-minute hearing Friday, said she would wait on the Kentucky Supreme Court ruling on the Kulkarni case before handling the Henderson case.

Jason Nemes, the Republican House Whip from Jefferson County and attorney for Ison and Stillwell, predicted that the judge would disqualify Henderson in light of the Supreme Court order.

Henderson’s attorney, Fielding Ballard of Shelbyville, said he wanted to see and review the Supreme Court’s opinion before commenting.

Henderson, an IT employee who had no opposition in the May Democratic primary election, faces Decker, who has been in office since Jan. 1, 20221, in the Nov. 5 general election.

Ison, in a brief interview before the hearing, said Decker did not ask him to file the lawsuit. He said he was involved in a similar case years ago and decided that it was his duty as Shelby County’s top Republican official to challenge Henderson’s papers.

Ballard questioned that, saying Ison filed the lawsuit after Henderson handed out “all his campaign cards” at Shelbyville’s annual Dogwood Festival.

In their lawsuit against Henderson, Ison and Stillwell claim Henderson violated the state law that requires a candidate’s notification petition to run to be signed by the candidate and “by not less than two registered voters of the same party.”

Henderson’s candidacy papers were not signed by a single registered Democratic voter, said the legal challenge against him.

The lawsuit said Adam Muntzinger and Taunya Muntzinger, were the two citizens who signed Henderson’s papers and both are registered Republicans in the district.

The suit asks the court to find that Henderson is not a bona fide candidate for the state House and is ineligible for election to state representative. Nemes said the state Board of Election should strike his name from the November ballot. The board is to certify the ballots Aug. 4.

Henderson, in a response to the court, denied the allegations and said the candidacy papers as filed were believed to be proper and sufficient when filed as the individuals signing them were believed to be registered voters of his party “from all conversations and statements” he had with them over the years.

He asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit with prejudice and order that he be compensated for any costs and his attorney receive a reasonable fee.

Ballard, Henderson’s attorney, said the cases are similar but differ in that Henderson did not have a primary challenger while Kulkarni did, William Zeitz.

According to unofficial results, Kulkarni took 78% of the vote in the 40th House District Democratic primary. No Republican candidates filed for the election.