Kentucky Appellate Courts

This is the final article in a four-part series on Kentucky’s court system.

This series of articles has weaved its way through what many consider the maze of Kentucky’s judicial system. Now, at the end of the journey, it is time to discuss the appellate courts.

Most of the cases heard in district, circuit or the specialty courts receive their final decisions in those courts. However, there are some cases that warrant a review as the result of error, new evidence or a constitutional challenge. Cases that require this type of attention are heard in the appellate courts. Kentucky has two forms of appellate court: the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court.

The Court of Appeals hears most cases appealed from circuit court (cases either originating in circuit court or cases that originated in district court, but were later appealed in circuit court). However, the Court of Appeals does not hold trials in the traditional sense. Instead, the judges who make up the Court of Appeals review the original trial record, with attorneys presenting the legal issues to the judges for a decision. The Court of Appeals has 14 judges, two elected from each of seven appellate districts

All 14 judges do not review every case, though. The judges, who serve eight-year terms, are divided into panels of three to review and decide the cases, with the majority deciding the outcome. The panels are mobile, moving about the state to hear appeals.

The published decisions of the judges become governing case law for similar cases in the trial courts across the state.

The highest court in Kentucky, the Supreme Court, has been called the court of last resort and the final interpreter of Kentucky law.

Like the Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court hears only cases that come to it from a lower court. Most of the time, appeals must first be heard by the Court of Appeals before coming to the Supreme Court; however, there are exceptions. Appeals involving the death penalty, life imprisonment, or imprisonment for 20 years or more bypass the Court of Appeals and go straight from circuit court to the Supreme Court. In order for an appeal from the Court of Appeals to be heard by the Supreme Court, the state’s highest court must first give its permission to hear the case. (The only exception is workers’ compensation appeals.)

Seven justices sit on the Supreme Court, with all seven justices ruling on appeals reviewed by the court. The justices serve eight-year terms and are elected from seven appellate districts across the state. The justices elect a chief justice to serve a four-year term. The chief justice serves as the administrative head of the state’s court system and is responsible for its operation.

Like the Court of Appeals, any published ruling by the Kentucky Supreme Court becomes designated case law for all future similar cases in the state. In addition, the Supreme Court establishes rules of practice and procedure for all Kentucky judges and attorneys.

Kentucky’s court system—from district court to the Supreme Court—is designed to ensure justice for those who walk through its doors. Although no system is perfect, our court system sets a high standard for accuracy and fairness.