By Charles Wolfe
The Associated Press
FRANKFORT - Ernie Fletcher is a legal candidate for governor and can remain on the Republican primary ballot even though his first running mate was disqualified, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
The ruling, in an appeal by the campaign of rival candidate Steve Nunn, came just 13 days before the primary election. Nunn was stoic. "The court case is over, but the campaign is not," he said in a statement.
Fletcher said he was "happy ... that this election is going to be back in the ballot box where it belongs."
The ruling "ends our opponents' desperate courtroom attempts to disrupt a primary," Fletcher said in a statement.
The justices said the disqualification of Fletcher's first running mate, Hunter Bates, did not torpedo Fletcher's candidacy for the Republican nomination, even though candidates for governor and lieutenant governor have to run as a slate and jointly take an oath of eligibility.
A judge in Oldham County ruled that Bates failed to meet constitutional residency requirements. Fletcher later selected Steve Pence, a former U.S. attorney, to take Bates' place on the ticket.
Another judge - Franklin County Circuit Judge William L. Graham - subsequently ruled that Fletcher was within his rights.
Graham relied on a statute that permits substitution of a candidate who has been disqualified. The Supreme Court, in four separate opinions, upheld Graham's decision.
In the lead opinion, Chief Justice Joseph E. Lambert said the issue was whether Bates had been disqualified or, as the Nunn camp contended, was never qualified to begin with.
Lambert, joined by four other justices, concluded that "Fletcher and Bates formed a slate" when their papers were certified in December by Secretary of State John Y. Brown III.
"The Fletcher-Bates slate thus acquired a legal existence, albeit flawed, that continued until Bates was held not to be a bona fide candidate" by an order of the Oldham County Circuit Court, Lambert's opinion said.
But the clincher, Lambert said, was that Brown subsequently certified a vacancy on the ballot. When that happened, "Fletcher was entitled to name a replacement running mate," the opinion said.
In a separate opinion, Justice William Cooper said he concurred with the results but not the reasoning. He said Bates was disqualified from the moment the candidacy papers were filed, and "the fact of his disqualification triggered the provisions of the vacancy statute."
Cooper said he attributed no significance to the secretary of state's initial certification of the slate.
Justice Bill Graves joined in Cooper's opinion. Justices Janet Stumbo, James Keller, Donald Wintersheimer and Martin Johnstone joined in Lambert's opinion. Stumbo and Wintersheimer also filed separate concurring opinions.
The ruling seemed likely to have a settling effect on the Kentucky Republican Party, which has not elected a governor since 1967 and figured to have its best chance in years with lame-duck Democratic Gov. Paul Patton tainted by scandal from an extramarital affair.
Fletcher, who represents central Kentucky's 6th District in Congress, is widely considered the GOP establishment candidate, though the party's top leaders, including U.S. Sens. Mitch McConnell and Jim Bunning and party Chairwoman Ellen Williams, have professed neutrality.
Fletcher's major opponents for the nomination are Nunn, a state representative from Glasgow, and Rebecca Jackson, the former clerk and judge-executive of Jefferson County.
Also on the ballot is state Sen. Virgil Moore of Leitchfield, who has run a limited campaign and has running mate problems of his own. Don Bell, the candidate for lieutenant governor on Moore's slate, has disavowed the campaign and refuses to take part.
Fletcher teamed up in December with Bates, a McConnell protege considered by many to be a rising star in Kentucky Republican politics. Bates, an attorney, had just managed McConnell's landslide re-election to a fourth term.
Bates moved to Oldham County last year but had spent the six previous years in Alexandria, Va. He worked for a law firm in Washington, then joined McConnell's Senate staff.
The Kentucky Constitution requires candidates for governor or lieutenant governor to be "citizens and residents" of Kentucky for the six years prior to election.
Oldham Circuit Judge Paul Rosenblum declared Bates ineligible on March 26.
Bates did not appeal, enabling Fletcher to quickly replace him with Pence, who resigned as U.S. attorney for the western half of the state.
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