Six North Idaho judges will try to keep their office this election, but the only people they’ll run against will be themselves.
Magistrate judges handle divorce cases, juvenile justice, misdemeanor crimes, traffic infractions, small claims and the preliminary stages of felony cases.
They are selected by a magistrate’s commission made up of citizens, lawyers and government officials. After 18 months in office and then again after every four years, they run for a “retention election.” In a retention election the voters are only asked whether the judge should stay in office. The judges are not affiliated with any political party.
If the majority of voters say yes, then the magistrate stays. If not, then the commission selects a new judge.
Since this system was devised in 1974, little more than half a dozen magistrates have been voted out of office.
Judges say such retention elections are good because they don’t have to campaign against someone.
“All you have to do is look next door to Washington where they have contested elections,” said Kootenai County magistrate Robert Burton. “You see all the publicity and all the animosity. I think it degrades the office when you have the type of name calling you see.”
But most importantly, they don’t have to solicit funds.
“You don’t want any special interest groups giving you money, said Bonner County magistrate Barbara Buchanan. “When you do that other people may think you are beholden,” she said.
People may then question whether the magistrate is giving special treatment to those who donated to his campaign.
Of course, by the nature of their jobs, magistrates also are in a position to upset potential voters, either by sentencing them to jail or deciding against them in a civil trial.
“In making a decision, I decide it on the basis of whether it’s right or wrong, not whether it’s popular,” said Kootenai County Judge Eugene Marano. “If I ever decide a case based on what’s in my best interest, I quit, plain and simple.”
Although there are no campaign rivals in these elections, “You’re always a little nervous and edgy,” Kootenai Judge John Luster admitted.
“You certainly hate to lose an election against yourself.”
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