Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear said Wednesday he appointed his chief Republican rival in the Legislature to a judicial post because he was the best qualified applicant for the job, not because getting him out of the way would improve the chances of legalizing casino gambling in the state.
Beshear, in his first public comments since appointing Senate President David Williams circuit judge in southern Kentucky, said he had a responsibility to pick the best person for the job.
Williams had been a hindrance to Beshear on some of his top legislative priorities, including a push to lift a constitutional ban on casino gambling in Kentucky.
Beshear told reporters it's "too early to speculate" on whether Williams' departure will improve the chances of getting the Legislature to pass such a measure.
"I don't think it's any secret that expanded gaming is one of the issues I think should be addressed by the people of this state," Beshear said. "And I'm hopeful we may be able to get a constitutional amendment passed in the upcoming session. I don't really know if we can or not, but it's always on my agenda."
If lawmakers approved a constitutional amendment during the next session, which begins in January, Beshear said it would then be placed on the ballot in 2014 for voters to ratify or reject.
Beshear appointed Williams to the judicial position Friday. That came despite the fact that Williams had run against Beshear last year in a vitriolic gubernatorial election that showed an intense dislike between the two. Beshear has a record of appointing Republicans to more lucrative government positions to get them out of the Senate.
Previously, Beshear made Senate Floor Leader Dan Kelly a circuit judge and appointed Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee Chairman Charlie Borders to the Public Service Commission.
"I felt he was the most qualified for the job, so I appointed him," Beshear said. "It was my responsibility for the folks of that judicial district to pick the best nominee of those that were sent to me, and I felt like I did that."
Williams' resignation is effective Friday, the same day he becomes judge.
The salary for Williams' new job about $124,000 a year, more than double what he makes as a lawmaker. Taking the position could also double state pension benefits for the 59-year-old after he retires.
Williams' appointment would fill the two years remaining in the term of Circuit Judge Eddie Lovelace, who died in September. To keep the seat, Williams will have to run when it comes up for election in 2014.
Beshear said he won't be involved in the selection of the next Senate leader.
"That's their decision," he said. "I will obviously look forward to sitting down, once they make their decision, and trying to establish a good working relationship."