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Kentucky Supreme Court rules Rep. Kulkarni’s primary candidacy disqualified

 Rep. Nima Kulkarni, D-Louisville, asks a question about House Bill 47, an act related to religious liberty on Feb. 21, 2024.
LRC Public Info
Rep. Nima Kulkarni of Louisville asks a question about House Bill 47, an act related to religious liberty on Feb. 21, 2024.

The Kentucky Supreme Court affirmed an appeals court ruling that Rep. Nima Kulkarni is disqualified from running in the Democratic primary.

The Kentucky Supreme Court ruled Friday that state Rep. Nima Kulkarni is disqualified as a candidate in the Democratic primary, negating her apparent win two weeks ago.

The court decision affirmed the previous ruling of the Kentucky Court of Appeals just before the election, which stated the incumbent was ineligible to run in the primary because one of the signatories of her candidate filing form was a registered Republican at the time.

A day ahead of the primary election, the Supreme Court paused the appeals court ruling to allow the Democratic primary to proceed while the justices could review the case.

The justices heard oral arguments in the case on Thursday, with Chief Justice Laurance B. VanMeter indicating they would issue a ruling as soon as possible. The winners of the May 21 primary are expected to be certified by state election officials on Monday.

The order indicates that the court is issuing the quick ruling “for the benefit of the parties” due to the timing of the challenge, adding that “the court will render an opinion in due course.”

Kulkarni received 78% of the votes in the primary, well more than William Zeitz, the only other Democratic candidate in the race.

What happens next is not yet clear. The parties to the case differ on whether the local party gets to choose what candidate will be the Democratic nominee in the general election, or if there will be a special election primary.

Kulkarni’s attorney argues she could still qualify as a general election candidate should she be chosen by the party, but the petitioner challenging her candidacy says she would remain disqualified. Both sides agree that Zeitz should not be the party’s nominee, but that decision may be up to the high court.

The petition to disqualify Kulkarni 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 is only eligible to run in a party’s primary election if both signatories are also in the same party.

The lower court and appeals court differed on whether or not it matters that the signatory in question, Sharon LaRue, switched her party registration to Democrat shortly after Kulkarni filed her candidacy form and before the secretary of state’s office certified the candidates.

When the Supreme Court publishes their official opinion on the case, it is likely to spell out their reason for why Kulkarni should remain disqualified, if not the procedure going forward on how candidates for the general election are determined.

Kulkarni had argued that Horlander’s lawsuit is "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%.

Asked by reporters after the Supreme Court oral arguments if he planned to run as a candidate in a possible special election, Horlander answered that he would “have to give that a lot of thought.”

Steven Megerle, the northern Kentucky attorney representing Horlander, praised the Supreme Court’s ruling for “upholding the idea of closed, partisan primaries” in Kentucky. He added that he expected the justices’ opinion to spell out the next steps on how the party’s nominee should be selected.

Megerle said Horlander “is seriously contemplating whether or not to seek nomination, since he was a well respected member of the General Assembly for over two decades.”

Asked how his client would respond to critics questioning his motives in the challenge, Megerle said his intentions “were to ensure that his successor followed the same rules to be qualified to be on the ballot that every other member of the General Assembly had to follow.”

James Craig, the attorney for Kulkarni, issued a statement indicating that “because there is now a vacancy in the nomination, it falls to the Jefferson County Democratic Party and the party officers for the 40th district to nominate a candidate.” He said Kulkarni hopes to be the chosen nominee of the party.

This story has been updated to include additional details.

State government and politics reporting is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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