Kentucky Governor Immune from Prosecution

Kentucky’s constitution protects the governor from prosecution while in office, a judge has ruled.

A judge ruled Friday that Gov. Ernie Fletcher, under fire for a hiring scandal, is protected by executive immunity and cannot be prosecuted while in office. Fletcher, Kentucky’s first Republican governor in three decades, was indicted in May on charges that his administration rewarded political supporters with protected state jobs. He has accused the Democratic attorney general of conducting a politically motivated investigation. Special Judge David E. Melcher essentially stayed the case until Fletcher’s term expires, or unless he is removed through impeachment by the Legislature.

Scott Crawford-Sutherland, the attorney general’s top prosecutor, urged the judge not to dismiss the case, saying no man is above the law. “There is no state in this country that has extended the kind of immunity urged by the governor,” he said. Defense attorney Steve Pitt said during the hearing Friday that the governor was willing to face a jury.

While my initial reaction was shock, the ruling actually makes perfect sense. Indeed, we extend the same protection to U.S. presidents. (Although, oddly, thanks to a 9-0 ruling in Clinton v. Jones, sitting presidents can be sued for civil damages.) The appropriate check on a chief executive’s conduct in office is sanction by the legislature, including impeachment in the case of criminal conduct.

Because most states elect the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and other key officials separately, it is not at all unusual to have split executives, where there is political animosity among the key players. I saw the results of criminalizing politics, where one governor was removed from office and another paralyzed in office because of politically motivated indictments. It’s no way to run a railroad.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Mark says:

    Interesting – considering that they charged Gov. Taft in Ohio and he had to plead guilty a while ago.

    Different strokes for different states I guess…heh.

  2. DL says:

    Who the hell does he think he is -Bill Clinton?

  3. just me says:

    It actually makes sense to require legislative impeachment before filing criminal charges-the goal being to limit “gotcha” politics.

  4. legion says:

    However, as the prosecuter notes in the article, this protection is not accorded to any other governor of any other state. And considering how utterly blatant Flethcer has been about this entire affair, this is hardly the best test case for its application…