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Ada County judge to legislators: We need more judges to decrease Idaho’s court backlogs

Idaho Supreme Court - 2021
Otto Kitsinger
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Idaho Supreme Court building in Boise on March 23, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

Senate committee also approves bill making it easier to alter racially discriminatory housing documents

Citing severe backlogs in the court system and strained resources, judges from across Idaho requested an additional district judge for Elmore County and two additional magistrate judges for Ada County from legislators at a Senate committee meeting on Wednesday.

Idaho’s district courts are funded through the Idaho Supreme Court, which will present its budget request to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee of the Idaho Legislature on Friday. The annual cost for the additional positions would be $694,086, according to the court’s budget outline.

Ada County Administrative District Judge Steven Hippler told the Senate Judiciary and Rules Committee that population growth, an increasing backlog of cases due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic and increased caseloads have caused a need for more judges. Approximately 40% of the state’s population now lives in Ada County, Hippler said, and the county has grown 30% just in the past decade.

“Despite the pandemic and the challenges it presents, we’ve never stopped serving the public,” Hippler said. “However, we have accumulated a substantial backlog of criminal cases, specifically jury trials.”

Using conservative estimates, Hippler said Ada County has a backlog of 350 to 500 criminal jury trials, with a significantly higher backlog when civil cases are included in the count. No jury trials for civil cases have taken place since March 2020, he said.

“Ada County civil cases tend to be substantially more complex than cases in other counties because it’s the home base of large companies, hospitals and governmental agencies. These entities tend to breed more complex litigation,” Hippler said.

In addition, felony crime and homicides have increased in Ada County, with 19 open homicide cases, which Hippler said is unprecedented. The average is typically two to three open homicide cases, he said.

Judges in Ada County have also been helping with caseloads in Elmore County, he said, and it is becoming too difficult to juggle resources between both, which also limits capacity for alternative courts.

“Despite the need for more treatment courts in Ada County, we currently do not have the resources we need in number and makeup of judges to expand those courts in a responsible way. Adding a new district judge in Elmore County will free up district judges to provide additional coverage to Ada County’s growing demands and allow the potential for more drug court coverage,” Hippler said.

Judicial council concerned by lack of applicants for Idaho judge positions

Retired Second District Judge Jeff Brudie, who is executive director of the Idaho Judicial Council, also told legislators the judiciary is concerned by the lack of applications received in recent years for district judges. Brudie said when he took a position with the judicial council in 2018, they were consistently able to send the Idaho governor a list of four judges to choose from for appointment. But in the past year, it has been difficult to assemble a list of four candidates for many areas of Idaho. For several positions, only two to three applications have been received.

Brudie said he wasn’t making any recommendations to the committee, but he wanted them to be aware of the problem and said the reasons qualified people don’t apply are usually compensation, contested elections and the selection process itself. The last time the council surveyed members of the Idaho State Bar and magistrate judges was about 13 years ago, Brudie said, and they are considering conducting another survey in the coming months, but he expects largely the same answers.

According to Idaho Supreme Court spokesman Nate Poppino, the budget request before the Legislature includes a pay increase in line with the state recommendation for increased employee compensation, which has not yet been determined by the Change in Employee Compensation Committee.

Committee approves bill to strike racial discrimination language from housing documents

The committee also heard Senate Bill 1240 and unanimously sent it to the floor for a vote. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, would allow homeowners and tenants to update property deeds and other relevant documents that include embedded language around racial discrimination in housing. The language was added to housing covenants in the 20th century to prevent people of color from buying homes in predominantly white neighborhoods, and the language still exists in some housing titles, even though it is considered void and unenforceable based on the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

Ed Labenski, a constituent of Wintrow’s, told her he found that language in the deed to his home, which was built in the 1970s, after making an offer on the house. Labenski said a section of the deed read that no part of the real property or any building site or structure could at any time be sold, conveyed, rented or leased to any person not of the white race, except a domestic servant.

“The initial impact of the language was clear and unavoidable and shaped our perception of the home and area,” Labenski said.

There is typically a $10 recording fee assessed by county clerks to change a deed or title, and the bill would waive that fee. According to the bill’s fiscal note, it is estimated there would be a $500 impact statewide, depending on the number of people who choose to act on it.

The bill will receive a vote in the Idaho Senate in the coming days of the session, and if passed, it will be sent to the House of Representatives for consideration.