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Late in session, House panel will consider major changes to Idaho Judicial Council

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

Retired chief justices sent letter with concerns about selection process changes

A bill that would make sweeping changes to Idaho’s judicial council will have a public hearing in the House Judiciary and Rules Committee on Thursday, less than a day after it was printed in the House Ways and Means Committee.

The changes the legislation would make to the selection process of judicial nominations has prompted concern from retired chief justices of the Idaho Supreme Court, who say it could lead to a smaller pool of candidates who are not as thoroughly vetted.

The Idaho Judicial Council is responsible for handling complaints against members of the judiciary and for its role in selecting new members of the judiciary, including sending a list of recommended candidates for judicial appointment by the Idaho governor.

According to the text ofHouse Bill 782, which was printed Wednesday evening and sponsored by Rep. Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell, the council would be expanded from seven to 11 members, including one district judge, one magistrate judge and four members of the Idaho State Bar. Instead of those members being appointed by the board of commissioners of the Idaho State Bar, the positions would be nominated by the Idaho Supreme Court and appointed by the governor with the consent of the Idaho Senate. The non-attorney members would also be chosen by the governor with the consent of the Senate.

The bill also shortens the term of a judicial council member from six to four years and allows the governor to reject one list of names submitted for any judicial appointment vacancy such as a magistrate or district court judge. It also adds language to make the comments and ratings of nominees from judicial council members a matter of public record and includes increases to judges’ salaries.

Former chief justices: We support the existing system

Five retired chief justices of Idaho’s Supreme Court sent a letter to Chaney, who is chairman of the Judiciary and Rules Committee, on Friday. The Idaho Capital Sun obtained a copy of the letter, which details a host of concerns with the legislation. The letter states support for the “existing system of sending vetted, qualified candidates to the governor.” It is signed by retired Chief Justices Roger S. Burdick, Robert Bakes, Linda Copple Trout, Gerald Schroeder and Jim J. Jones.

“We universally state the Council has done its work not to benefit any one group of lawyers or political party nor to further any social agenda, but to send qualified candidates for judicial positions,” the letter reads. “We have used the applicant’s prior work experience, temperament and public comments sent to the Council as well as the Council’s public interviews to guide our decisions.”

The retired justices also have concerns about narrowing the pool of qualified candidates. The bill would require attorneys on the judicial council to practice specific areas of law — one who would predominantly practice civil defense, one who mostly represents civil plaintiffs, one who practices mostly in the area of criminal defense and one who mostly practices in criminal prosecution. The letter says lawyers in small towns would be hard pressed to meet the requirements of predominantly criminal and civil work.

“We don’t think you will want to lose that portion of lawyers in counties other than those where there are enough folks to specialize in the law,” the letter says.

The additional requirements for the selection process would add significant time as well, the justices said, and making the records public would stop the free flow of information to the council from individuals who know the applicant best.

The bill is on the agenda for the 1:30 p.m. House Judiciary and Rules meeting in the East Wing 42 room of the Idaho Capitol. Idahoans can sign up to testify remotely at the Idaho Legislature’s website or view the hearing via Idaho in Session.

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state. As longtime Idahoans ourselves, we understand the challenges and opportunities facing Idaho. We provide in-depth reporting on legislative and state policy, health care, tax policy, the environment, Idaho’s explosive population growth and more. Our mission is relentless investigative journalism that sheds light on how decisions in Boise and beyond are made and how they affect everyday Idahoans. We aim to tell untold stories and provide data, context and analysis on the issues that matter most throughout the state. The Capital Sun is part of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. We retain full editorial independence.