FRANKFORT -- A legal fight between Gov. Matt Bevin's administration and the state's attorney general over subpoenas sent to Kentucky school districts as part of an investigation into teacher sickouts has expanded to include which court should hear the case.
State Labor Cabinet attorneys on Thursday filed a notice of removal that shifted the case to federal court. The state's labor secretary is named as the defendant in the lawsuit. The cabinet has the authority to investigate illegal work stoppages and impose individual fines.
Attorney General Andy Beshear's office said Friday it will contest the new venue.
"We are going to ask the federal court to return it to state court where it should be," the AG's office said in a statement.
Beshear filed the suit in Franklin County Circuit Court to try to block the subpoenas issued by Bevin's administration. The case was initially assigned to a state judge who has drawn Bevin's ire. Last year, the judge struck down a public pension measure backed by Bevin. The state Supreme Court upheld his ruling.
The subpoenas, sent to 10 Kentucky school districts, seek the names of teachers who might have used sick days to attend statehouse rallies earlier this year, forcing some districts to cancel classes. The protests, aimed at several education bills, were part of a wave of teacher activism that began last year in West Virginia and spread to other states, including Oklahoma and Arizona.
The Labor Cabinet said Friday that federal court is the proper venue to hear issues surrounding the subpoenas.
In a statement, the cabinet said Beshear's "initial filing raises a federal question related to the First Amendment and should be heard by a federal court, rather than Franklin Circuit Court."
Bevin has said Beshear's office deliberately crafted the lawsuit so as to try to ensure it ended up in state court.
The attorney general said the administration's legal maneuvering to move the suit to federal court was another example that "Matt Bevin and his allies will stop at nothing in their attempts to intimidate and attack teachers."
The case is wrapped up in election-year politics and marks the latest feud between the Republican governor and the Democratic attorney general. Their confrontation could ultimately be settled at the ballot box as Bevin is seeking re-election this year and Beshear hopes to prevail in a crowded Democratic primary later this month to try to unseat him.
The attorney general's office said Beshear has cited state labor law in arguing that the subpoenas were unlawful.
He said the teacher absences had triggered no disputes between teachers and their school districts â€" a condition for an illegal work stoppage under state law. He also said the labor secretary doesn't have the authority to request the information sought in the subpoenas.
The Jefferson County Teachers Association, which represents teachers in Kentucky's most populous county, joined Beshear in filing the lawsuit.
In another development, the Kentucky Department of Education has given Bevin's administration the names of teachers possibly involved in sickouts after receiving a subpoena from the state. State Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis notified the affected school districts about the subpoena and the department's decision to comply.
"While KDE complied with the subpoena, KDE continues to maintain the confidentiality of the documents and is not releasing the documents publicly," Lewis said in his notification. "In addition, KDE has informed the Labor Cabinet that, to date, it has not undertaken any investigation concerning specific individuals named in the produced records."
The Labor Cabinet said Friday that the subpoenas "are merely a first step in the Cabinet's investigation and do not indicate what action, if any, may ultimately be taken by the Cabinet."