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Kentucky by Heart: Corns, ‘poor boy from Lewis County,’ made historic impact on education system

By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist

Judge Ray Corns, of the Franklin County Circuit Court, handed down one of the most far-reaching judicial decisions ever rendered in the state of Kentucky—precipitating a dramatic change in the state’s education system. It was the passing of the Kentucky Educational Reform Act (KERA) in 1990.

The legislative act occurred after the judge’s 1988 decision ruling that the funding of Kentucky’s public schools was rife with inequality—and was deemed unconstitutional, and that the situation needed changing.

Corns was born on March 19, 1934, in the tiny map dot of Epworth, in Lewis County. His family was poor, and he attended financially poor schools.

He offered a touch of levity recently while looking back at a hard time in his life as a youth. I wasn’t surprised at his wit, as he is widely known as a speaker who injects his talks with humor and has an amiable personality.

Judge Ray Corns, of the Franklin County Circuit Court, handed down one of the most far-reaching judicial decisions ever rendered in the state of Kentucky—precipitating a dramatic change in the state’s education system. It was the passing of the Kentucky Educational Reform Act (KERA) in 1990 (Photo Provided)

Judge Ray Corns, of the Franklin County Circuit Court, handed down one of the most far-reaching judicial decisions ever rendered in the state of Kentucky—precipitating a dramatic change in the state’s education system. It was the passing of the Kentucky Educational Reform Act (KERA) in 1990 (Photo Provided)

“My dad never made $3000 a year in his life,” Corns said. His father made a living as a Carnation Milk deliverer and made trips frequently to the much larger town of Maysville, but didn’t own the truck.

“We didn’t have a car until I was in the twelfth grade,” he continued. As a teenager, he was not permitted to drive the car that finally appeared, he noted with a grin, because his father guardedly considered it the family’s own special “limousine.”

Young Ray attended a four-room school with two grades in each classroom. Lack of adequate space was only a part of the education challenge, however.

“We didn’t have a great chemistry lab,” he noted, eyes twinkling. “It consisted of two glass beakers and a pitcher…and we broke the pitcher.”

He was at a severe disadvantage in building his educational foundation, as many growing up in Kentucky in those days were. After he graduated from Tollesboro High School, odds for advancing his schooling appeared unlikely until he received some welcome advice and encouragement from a mentor.

“I would never have been able to go to college except that the vo-ag teacher, Charles Hughes, said to me: ‘Ray, you should go to college. No one in your family has ever gone.’”

With those words from the teacher, his world and vision would change forever, starting in the fall of 1952.

“I caught the Greyhound bus with a couple of new pair of jeans and a couple of good shirts and undershorts and went to Berea College,” he said. “Whenever I came home (at Christmas), I would ride the Greyhound back to Tollesboro.”

He started his tenure at Berea College by taking remedial classes in order to be better prepared for his classes. His plan was to become a teacher, but near the time he graduated in 1956, someone suggested he consider going to law school. In particular, the Cumberland University School of Law, Lebanon, Tennessee was mentioned as a place he might garner a scholarship, and so, why not apply for one?

He did, accepting a scholarship that year at Cumberland (a part of Samford University, in Alabama, today). The institution had a good reputation, according to Corns.

“It was a wonderful school, mostly having professors who had been on appellate courts…and (it had) a wonderful pupil-teacher ratio.” He later finished academically at the top of his class at the school.

While in school at Berea, he met Patsy Daniels, and they were married shortly before he started law school. It was a close relationship, but Patsy died 19 years ago. It was a partnership that resulted in two children who are successful in their professions today. Autumn, 56, is an attorney in Frankfort and April, 54, is owner of a business in California.

After graduating from law school, Corns worked for a short while in private law practice in Morganfield, Kentucky. He then moved to Frankfort to become an assistant attorney general. Overlapping that time, he was a legal advisor to governors Bert. T. Combs and Edward Breathitt from 1959 until 1967, as well as the chief legal counsel for the Kentucky Department of Education. He was forming strong relationships.

Corns praised both governors he worked under, calling Combs “a very honest man” and referred to Breathitt as “one of the finest gentlemen I ever knew. He was in the Sunday School class I taught at the First United Methodist Church for years, and I never heard him say ‘durn,’ never cursed, never profane.” He also applauded Combs for fighting for improvements in the state’s education system and Breathitt’s embracing of the civil rights movement.

Though he has been a lifelong Democrat, he became a good friend of Republican leader Larry Forgy and others of that party.

“I have good friends on both sides of the aisle,” he said. “I don’t think either party has a monopoly on virtue.”

Corns served a stint in 1974 as Franklin County Juvenile Judge, then, in the next year, he ran for Commonwealth Attorney there. He worked extremely hard electioneering, as he relates here. “I started knocking on doors on the Saturday before the Memorial Day weekend ‘til before the November election,” he recalled, grinning. “You can’t be against dogs because everybody has a dog…a lot of people have Dobermans.”

His persistence and amiable personality helped win the election, and he served in the position from 1975 to 1982, making lots of friends and doing competent work. He developed a reputation for fairness, and afterward he ran and won election as Circuit Court Judge in the same county. He served from 1983 until 1990, and along the way, made history.

According to Corns, he first heard that he would be the presiding judge for the education case, Rose vs. Council for Better Education, from his wife, Patsy, who read it in Frankfort’s State Journal newspaper. At that time, there had been movement for several years towards a court showdown in regard to financing primary and secondary education.

This would be the case that would test constitutionally the system. True to form, it did, and on May 31, 1988, Judge Corns ruled in Franklin County Circuit Court that Kentucky’s current method of school finance fails to provide all of Kentucky’s Common School the substantially equal educational opportunities afforded in an efficient system of Common Schools throughout the state. (University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law Review, vol.27).

The Kentucky Supreme Court, in 1989, agreed with the decision of Judge Corns and set the stage for Kentucky’s state legislature to take action on more closely equalizing local school district funding, and in addition to overhaul the way schools taught and were structured. The Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) was enacted, and though the process has, at times, proved controversial, it has been modeled in other states for its boldness and for the parts that work well.

Judge Corns remembers clearly the actions he took while carrying out the hearing of the case. Having worked in the state’s education department, he figured there was a chance some involved would be concerned about possible bias on his part. With that, he gathered all the parties involved and made the offer to step aside if anyone so desired.

“If, for any reason, any of you think I should not serve, I can transfer it to Judge Graham,” he said. “I went around the room…and everyone wanted me to stay.”

Corns explained the gist of the case, which basically defined what the Kentucky Constitution meant when it instructed the state’s legislature to provide for an “efficient” educational system. “The opponents argued that just meant whatever monies you had, you had to use it efficiently. I said: ‘In all fairness, I think it means a little more than that.’”

Historian Dr. William Ellis, a long-time professor at Eastern Kentucky and researcher on education in Kentucky, said that although there is still a lot to do to establish educational equity: “Corns gave the logical decision in the case. Unfortunately, Kentucky had not equalized its school systems.”

Current Fayette County Family Court Judge Tim Philpot was elected to the Kentucky Senate in 1990 when KERA was a hot topic. He noted this about Corns:

“Regardless of whether you were for or against KERA, everyone was unanimous that Judge Corns was right to do what he did,” said Philpot. “He was genuinely respected for his fearlessness. He seemed to realize that judges were able to ‘do good.’ He could have been fatalistic and said, as many did, that one order from a judge is not going to change anything, that education is not a judicial issue, and there is some truth to that. But he recognized that sometimes you have to ‘do something,’ even when you know it may not matter.”

Steve Flairty grew up feeling good about Kentucky. He recalls childhood day trips (and sometimes overnight ones) orchestrated by his father, with the take-off points being in Campbell County. The people and places he encountered then help define his passion about the state now. After teaching 28 years, Steve spends much of his time today writing and reading about the state, and still enjoys doing those one dayers (and sometimes overnighters). “Kentucky by Heart” shares part and parcel of his joy. A little history, much contemporary life, intriguing places, personal experiences, special people, book reviews, quotes, and even a little humor will, hopefully, help readers connect with their own “inner Kentucky.”

After moving on from his seven-year stint as judge in the Franklin County Circuit Court, he served several more positions before retiring from active law work and now living in Versailles. Those positions included Kentucky State Police Commissioner and Special Circuit Judge for 20 Kentucky counties. He has gained respect all along the path of his career.

Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Bill Cunningham shared this account of Corns. “I remember as a very young lawyer representing my destitute and desperate sister, recently widowed, before Judge Corns in an EPA appeal. She was barely surviving and supporting a 14-year-old son on what meager money she was making from a sewer plant servicing a subdivision,” said Cunningham. “We traveled a long way up here (Frankfort) from far west Kentucky and were very apprehensive about a new and unknown world of Franklin Circuit Court.

“First time I ever saw Judge Corns. He was so kind and considerate and made us feel very much at ease. Of course it didn’t hurt that he ruled in our favor. My sister never saw Judge Corns again. But until her death, if his name was ever mentioned, a smile lit up her face.

“Ray is just a joy to be around. He is a graphic example of how being a judge does not have to make you dull or doleful. He has a tremendous sense of wit and I love his humor. There is a nutmeg sense of fun about him, while at the same time he is possessed of great depth and wisdom.”

That sense of fun Cunningham mentions has enabled him to be a part of the Woodsongs Old-time Radio Hour, originating from Lexington. He does a short warm-up comedy routine on the show, and is a friend of the program founder Michael Johnathon, for whom he officiated at his wedding.

Though Corns now has a less intense schedule of speaking engagements, many know him best as an entertainer, something he has greatly enjoyed. His humor is the clean kind, and he is happy to call himself an extremely optimistic person, a gift from his mother, whom he called “always care-free and happy.”

I asked Judge Corns how he’d like to be remembered, and he answered in his typical humble and light-hearted way. He likened himself to the Christmas classic Little Drummer Boy. “I might not have made very good music, but I drummed out a lot of bad.”

True, and not bad for a poor boy from Lewis County who attended underfunded schools and few did anything about it.

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Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of former Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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