Idaho House will hear bill making major changes to Idaho Judicial Council
Rexburg representative who served on council says changes could bring politics into judge appointment process
The Idaho House Judiciary and Rules Committee sent a bill to the House floor on Thursday that makes major changes to the judicial appointment process less than a day after it was printed and without input from the judiciary branch.
The committee voted 10-7 to send the bill to the floor without a recommendation as to whether it should pass the House.
House Bill 782 was printed by the House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday, with about one week left before the target date to adjourn the legislative session. It is a revision of House Bill 600, which was introduced in early February but never had a public hearing. Both bills are sponsored by Rep. Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell.
The new bill makes several changes to the Idaho Judicial Council, which is responsible for handling complaints against members of the judiciary and guides the selection process for a list of recommended judicial candidates for appointment to send to the governor. The council was established in 1967 in an effort to ensure a nonpartisan selection process for judicial appointments.
Under the legislation, 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 nominated by the board of commissioners of the Idaho State Bar with the consent of the Idaho Senate, 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, which requires a vote by the Senate Judiciary and Rules Committee and then a majority vote in the full Senate.
Chaney said the reason for the changes was to bring a wider diversity of perspectives to the council and to bring more transparency to the process. Sen. Abby Lee, R-Fruitland, also sponsored the bill and said it would increase transparency as well.
“We’ve worked on this for quite some time. You will probably hear that there will be a request that we slow this down, and we continue to look at this,” Lee said, but continued to push for its passage on Thursday.
Idaho Supreme Court spokesperson Nate Poppino said Chief Justice Richard Bevan did meet with a lobbyist about a previous version of the bill, House Bill 600, but only got a copy of House Bill 782 on Wednesday afternoon. Poppino said the Supreme Court justices were not solicited for feedback. Bevan is out of the country on a long-planned trip and left Wednesday, Poppino said.
House Bill 600 was two pages shorter and did not include as many changes. It did not expand the number of council members or specify the areas of law in which they were to practice. That version also did not tie judicial salaries with the council changes.
Rep. James Ruchti, D-Pocatello, said this is the hardest push for a piece of legislation he has seen in at least the past two years. Committee members were receiving text messages from House leadership before and during the meeting, Ruchti said.
“This bill is important to somebody or to some people, but I can’t necessarily tell you the who and the why,” Ruchti said.
As a possible reason for the changes, Ruchti pointed to recent decisions from the Idaho Supreme Court that struck down laws passed by the Legislature, including a law surrounding the ballot initiative process and a challenge to the redistricting map earlier this year.
“There are legislators here who really don’t like the fact that the Supreme Court takes a look at some of the legislation that’s passed over here and deems it unconstitutional. That’s very frustrating to some legislators in this building,” Ruchti said.
Rep. Ron Nate: Changes could bring politics into judicial process
The vote on the bill followed debate and several contentious motions to hold the bill in committee because of the short timeline and lack of input from the judicial branch. If a committee votes in favor of a bill, it normally sends the legislation to the floor with a “do pass” recommendation.
“My opinion is that just about every member on that committee had reservations on that bill in one aspect or another,” Ruchti said. “There might have been a couple who liked the bill as written, but I think most of them had serious reservations. I think people knew there was a lot of push to get it to the floor and ‘no recommendation’ is the way to do that.”
Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, voted against the bill and said he served on the judicial council for six years with “amazing people.”
“It was remarkably non-political, (and) the deliberations were always professional,” Nate said. “The goal, it seemed, in every decision that was made is what would be the best for the Idaho Judiciary Committee and the people of Idaho. I never saw politics come into it once.”
Looking at the bill with that context, Nate said his biggest concern was changing the composition of the council, because the governor would have a role in the selection of eight of the 11 members instead of three of seven members.
“That’s a huge shift,” Nate said. “… It could bring politics into the judicial council that hasn’t existed there before.”
The bill also shortens the term of a judicial council member from six to four years, and it 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.
Retired Third District Judge Juneal Kerrick testified on the bill during the hearing, saying there were things to like in the legislation, but it was rushed and needed more consideration. The suggestion from justices during previous discussions on the subject, Kerrick said, has been to use a special Idaho Supreme Court committee to find a resolution through collaboration. The committee would include judges, attorneys and members of the public to gather as much input as possible before crafting a bill.
“There are things that need to be changed that can be changed,” Kerrick told the committee. “But shouldn’t we rely on information from people who have some experience? I’d like to hear from people who have been on the judicial council before on what they see the flaws are in the system.”
The bill is now on the second reading calendar in the House of Representatives, and it could be voted on as soon as Friday.