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Judicial Focus




Former Justice Mary Noble,
Supreme Court of Kentucky

Q: What made you decide to retire from the bench this year?


A: My term of office ended, and I decided not to seek re-election because I have other projects and advocacies that I want to do that an impartial justice may not do. Also, I believe there is merit in bringing fresh thought to the bench, and I knew that there were excellent people who would like to serve on the Supreme Court.


What are some of your fondest memories of your time on the bench?


I have worked with many amazing people who have been my mentors and friends. They enriched my life in so many ways.  I have also loved interacting with the people who come before the court. After you have done your best to understand the entire dynamic of a case, and the appropriate law, and then ruled in a fair and impartial way, there is an incredible sense of satisfaction.

There is, as you know, some debate about whether oral arguments actually impact the outcome of a case. Was your vote ever swayed by oral argument?


Oral arguments are absolutely helpful, though obviously more so in some cases than others. They help the Court organize its collective thoughts. Individually, questions asked by other justices can help crystallize your own thoughts. I often left oral argument with a new perspective.


Along those same lines, can you provide the Bar with some guidance as to what to do and, perhaps more importantly, what not to do during oral argument? How about when it comes to briefing? What do you look for in a strong brief?


The most important tip to remember at oral argument is to not interrupt a speaking justice! Also, don't be overly familiar, too cute, or too funny.  The time is short and the business is serious. Being pleasant is a plus. Being well informed is a necessity.


Take us behind the scenes of how a case is decided by the Supreme Court, particularly the deliberations among the justices once a case is submitted?


The Supreme Court decides cases on a cycle. First, cases will be granted discretionary review or appear on the docket as a matter of right. The default is that all DR cases will be orally argued, unless the Court specifically decides otherwise. MR cases are generally assigned directly to a justice, and proceed to the opinion stage, discussed following.


Oral argument cases are studied by each justice prior to the argument. After argument of each case, the Court convenes and takes the initial vote on the outcome. The case is then assigned by the Chief Justice to a justice from the majority, who will write the majority opinion.


The opinion stage takes as long as a case calls for, though the Court has the goal of getting the opinion to the other justices for review and voting within two to three months. When the opinion is circulated, the justices vote to join, dissent or hold to conference for further discussion. 


During Court Week, the first order of business is usually calling the docket on circulated opinions. Votes are taken again on each case.  Lengthy discussion may occur on any given case.


If the vote is unanimous, the opinion gets posted. If someone dissents or concurs separately, the case is held to allow that justice to write. That opinion then gets circulated and voted on at a later date. This can sometimes take a long time to resolve, but eventually a clear majority or plurality is reached and the case is posted. After finality, this becomes the law in Kentucky.


How did you go about deciding which cases merited discretionary review? Tell us a little about that process?


Cases are selected for discretionary review because they present a novel question of law, or if the Court of Appeals panels are split, or if they involve matters of great public importance where the law is not clear or is evolving.  Or anytime a majority of the Court wants to hear a case.

Finally, how do you want people to remember Mary Noble’s time on the bench?

I hope my time on the bench will be remembered for fair, unbiased opinions, well-grounded in the law.  I hope the service projects I oversaw, such as developing Drug Courts, Family Court Rules and Juvenile Court Rules will give meaningful help to the people the Court of Justice serves.

NOTE: This is the first in a recurring series of interviews with Kentucky judges. The editors of KAS Monthly thank Justice Noble for her time in answering these questions.


[Image Credit: Kentucky Court of Justice.]

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