FRANKFORT, Ky. — The Kentucky Supreme Court won’t say if Republican Gov. Matt Bevin broke the law when he ousted the University of Louisville’s governing board last year, prompting the governor and his chief political rival to both claim victory.
Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear said Bevin’s order broke the law and sued him in June 2016. The Republican-controlled Legislature responded by changing the law. The Supreme Court ruled Thursday the new law made the issue moot and dismissed the case.
“We do not decide moot cases because the role of our court is not to give advisory opinions,” Kentucky Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr. wrote for the court.
The Supreme Court did what Bevin wanted by dismissing the case. But they also did something Beshear wanted by clarifying that the law Bevin originally relied upon to abolish the board of trustees no longer applies to public universities. Instead, the new law the Legislature passed earlier this year takes precedence.
That’s important, Beshear said, because the law that Bevin initially used let him dissolve university boards with no oversight. That’s one of the reasons why the university’s accrediting board put the school on probation, threatening its status as an accredited university and millions of dollars of student financial aid. Beshear said the ruling clarifies that no governor can use that law again to disband a public university’s board.
“I view today’s decision as a total win that protects Kentucky’s public universities, our students’ financial aid and the thousands of research jobs our public institutions support,” Beshear said. “The Supreme Court did not refute the circuit court’s ruling that the governor violated the law. Instead, they found that the General Assembly bailed him out.”
Bevin has argued the university was never in danger of losing its accreditation. Plus, the university faced additional accreditation issues following a scathing state audit released earlier this year that had nothing to do with Bevin’s order. Interim University of Louisville President Greg Postel told lawmakers on Thursday that the school has resolved most of those issues and hopes to have the probation lifted in December.
“Today puts an end to Attorney General Andy Beshear tossing the future of the University of Louisville around like a political football,” Bevin spokeswoman Amanda Stamper said.
Bevin’s attorney Steve Pitt noted the ruling orders the circuit court to dismiss the case. That means a previous ruling that Bevin’s order was illegal would no longer apply. Pitt also said the court’s ruling does not mean Bevin was wrong when he issued the order, only that the new law takes precedence over the old law.
“You can parse that language anyway you want to. In terms of what was before the court in this order, the court sided with the governor unanimously,” he said.
This isn’t the only time Bevin has used executive authority to abolish and replace a state board. Since taking office, Bevin has altered 37 state boards and commissions by adding and replacing members. In every case, Bevin has relied on the state law that lets him make temporary changes to state government while the Legislature is not in session.
Beshear has sued Bevin three times over this. In the latest lawsuit, Beshear has asked a judge to declare the law Bevin uses is unconstitutional. That case is still pending.
In total, Beshear has sued Bevin four times. The last time the two appeared before the state Supreme Court, Beshear won when the court ordered Bevin was wrong to order spending cuts at public colleges and universities without asking the Legislature for permission.