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Kentucky Appeals Court rules Louisville Rep. Kulkarni ineligible for Democratic primary

Rep. Nima Kulkarni of Louisville asks a question about House Bill 5, an act related to crime, during a House Standing Committee on Judiciary in January 2024..
LRC Public Information
Democratic Rep. Nima Kulkarni of Louisville says she will appeal the decision to the Kentucky Supreme Court.

The Kentucky Court of Appeals has reversed a Jefferson Circuit decision to deny a petition to disqualify Kulkarni’s candidacy over an error on her form when she filed for office, though she says she’ll appeal.

A unanimous decision of the Kentucky Court of Appeals reversed a lower court opinion Wednesday, declaring state Rep. Nima Kulkarni of Louisville ineligible as a candidate in the Democratic primary next week.

Kulkarni indicated after the ruling was issued that she will appeal the decision to the Kentucky Supreme Court.

Time is of the essence in any potential appeal, as no-excuse in-person early voting begins Thursday, and Election Day is next Tuesday.

Last month, Jefferson Circuit Judge Mitch Perry denied a petition that sought to disqualify Kulkarni’s candidacy over an error on her form when she filed with the secretary of state’s office to run for reelection in January.

The petition was filed in March by Dennis Horlander, a former Democratic state legislator who served for more than two decades in Louisville before he was defeated in the 2018 primary by Kulkarni.

At issue was the fact that one of the two required signatories to her candidate filing was a registered Republican at the time. Kentucky law states a candidate can only be eligible to run in a party’s primary election if both signatories are also in the same party.

Perry had ruled that Sharon LaRue, the signatory in question, had quickly changed her registration to Democrat before the Kentucky secretary of state’s office certified the candidates in the race later that month, writing that the petition “fails to establish the heavy burden required to disqualify a candidate from the ballot.”

The three-judge Court of Appeals disagreed, with Judge Sara Walter Combs writing in the opinion and order that the denial of the petition is reversed. The matter now moves back to Jefferson Circuit Court for an order granting the petition to disqualify Kulkarni as a bona fide candidate.

Combs wrote that state Supreme Court precedent requires strict compliance with the statute mandating witnesses signing the candidate form be a member of the same party, which “cannot be cured at any time thereafter.”

“She did not change her registration until after she signed the witness affidavit, after Kulkarni’s nomination papers were filed with the Kentucky Secretary of State, and after the January 5, 2024, deadline to submit nominating papers had expired,” Combs wrote. “LaRue, consequently, is not allowed to vote for Kulkarni in the 2024 Democratic primary election, and, therefore, she is not a ‘registered voter of the same party’ as Kulkarni.”

Appeals Court Judges Pamela Goodwine and J. Christopher McNeill concurred with the ruling.

In a statement to Kentucky Public Radio, Kulkarni wrote that she is “absolutely taking this to the Supreme Court.”

“The Court of Appeals got it wrong and ignored major components of the law,” Kulkarni stated. “I am disappointed that they chose to disenfranchise voters one day before early voting begins. We are absolutely fighting this unjust decision.”

Steven Megerle, the northern Kentucky attorney representing Horlander, praised the ruling, telling Kentucky Public Radio it “shows that in expedited situations that our justice system can act promptly and issue a ruling so that voting would not be upset in House District 40.”

Horlander’s attorney had argued the lower court ruling attempted to upend more than a century of closed primaries in Kentucky, which would allow parties to interfere in the others’ primaries by getting “dummy candidates” to file who are not really qualified to hold office.

“Had Ms. Kulkarni asked the simple question of her friend, Sharon LaRue, whether or not she was a Republican or Democrat, she'd still be on the ballot,” Megerle said. “She did not do that… And this, unfortunately, is the mandatory result in Kentucky.”

As for a potential appeal to the Kentucky Supreme Court, Megerle said reversing the appeals ruling “would be significantly high bar” and he did not think the court “would basically shut down an election based on the undisputed facts.”

Kulkarni previously stated that Horlander’s lawsuit was "a desperate attempt by my former opponent" to disenfranchise her constituents.

Horlander, known as a socially conservative legislator, was unseated in 2018 after Kulkarni defeated him by a 21-point margin in the Democratic primary that May. Horlander sought a rematch in the 2020 primary, but lost in an even larger rout, receiving 21% to Kulkarni’s 78%.

Joe is the enterprise statehouse reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Richmond, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email Joe at jsonka@lpm.org.
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