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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — When Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin's office fired the lieutenant governor's top two assistants it had every legal right to do so, a judge said Friday in ruling on an extraordinary legal fight playing out amid the governor's tough reelection campaign.
Franklin County Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd ruled that the governor has "superseding authority" to hire and fire the lieutenant governor's staff, and the lieutenant governor has none — unless the governor grants the authority.
Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton's attorney, Joshua Harp, said he's reviewing the ruling, but he expects to appeal.
The Republican governor dropped Hampton from his ticket early this year. In separate actions, Bevin's aides fired Hampton's chief of staff and deputy chief of staff, over her objections.
Hampton went to court seeking their reinstatement.
Her lawsuit exposed tensions at the highest level of Kentucky government, which Democrats have sought to exploit as Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear tries to unseat Bevin in the Nov. 5 election.
Following the dismissal of her deputy chief of staff, Hampton sent a tweet asking for prayers in her fight against "dark forces." Hampton has only several more weeks left in office.
The case tests whether the lieutenant governor is an independent officer who heads an agency or is a subordinate officer to the governor. Hampton contends that her status as an "agency head" gives her the authority to appoint employees in her office.
In his ruling in Frankfort, Kentucky, Shepherd said there's "nothing in the record to support the proposition that the 'department' assigned to the Office of Lieutenant Governor consists of any personnel other than the Lieutenant Governor herself."
"No statute, administrative regulation or budget provision assigns any personnel to the Lieutenant Governor," he wrote. "To the contrary, all personnel who have been assigned as support staff for the Lieutenant Governor were appointed by Governor Bevin as part of the staff of the Office of the Governor."
Allowing the lieutenant governor to operate as an independent officer would be "inconsistent" with a constitutional amendment that has the governor and lieutenant governor run as a unified ticket, with the governor heading the slate, the judge said.
Shepherd also cited budgetary considerations in concluding that the lieutenant governor is "subordinate" to the governor and part of the governor's office.
The current executive branch budget bill contains "no separate budget unit" for the lieutenant governor's office, he said. Instead, all budgetary allocations for the lieutenant governor are included in allocations for the governor's office, the judge said.
"The Kentucky Constitution and statutes make clear that the Office of Lieutenant Governor is a subsidiary part of the Office of the Governor, and not a stand-alone unit of state government with independent powers and duties," he wrote. "Accordingly, the governor is the ultimate appointing authority for all personnel in that office."
Bevin's office did not immediately comment on the ruling.
Shepherd said his decision "should not be construed" as any criticism of Hampton, saying she appears to have carried out her assigned duties with "dignity, loyalty and honor."
The judge noted that past governors let their lieutenant governors hire and fire staff members assigned them. But in the absence of a statute, or a clear delegation of authority from the governor, the lieutenant governor lacks such authority, he said.
"The record here contains no explanation as to why Governor Bevin has not accorded Lieutenant Governor Hampton such basic authority over the operation of her own office," the judge wrote.
Bevin picked Hampton as his running mate four years ago, and she made history as the first black person elected to statewide office in Kentucky. She lobbied him to retain her this year, but he dropped her in favor of state Sen. Ralph Alvarado. Hampton has strong support among tea party activists, and some have come to her defense.
At a hearing this summer, Bevin's lawyer described the dispute as a minor disagreement among friends.
Hampton disputed that characterization, telling reporters afterward: "My friends don't treat me this way." Hampton added then that she supported Bevin's reelection.