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Minnick: Idaho needs 3rd federal judge

Wed., July 28, 2010, 1:20 p.m.

BOISE - Idaho needs a third federal district judge, according to Congressman Walt Minnick, who notes that the state hadn’t gotten an additional judgeship in 56 years.

“We have two judges serving two or three times as many people per capita as our neighboring states,” Minnick said today. “It’s wearing out our judges. … We have a better case for a new federal judge than just about anybody in the country.”

Minnick is introducing legislation in Congress today, with Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson as the co-sponsor, to give Idaho a third judgeship. “We’ll be looking for opportunities to attach it to something that’s moving, so hopefully we can break this logjam,” Minnick said. “I don’t think there’s any opposition on the merits. The question will be whether it gets tied up in other issues.”

Census figures show that in the past 56 years, Idaho’s population has swelled from just over a half-million people to more than 1.5 million today. According to the U.S. District Court in Boise, Montana, Wyoming, Alaska and South Dakota all have three federal district judges, though Idaho has up to three times their caseloads.

Minnick, a Democrat, said he and Simpson, a Republican, first waited to see if there was going to be a multistate bill regarding new federal judgeships that Idaho could join. But, Minnick said, “None has materialized in this administration, so we decided to take matters into our own hands.”

The cost of adding a third district judge in Idaho will be less than the judge’s $174,000 annual salary, Minnick said, because the court currently must rely on visiting judges to pick up some of its cases, which carries its own costs.

“You’ve got the same court costs, and you’ve got traveling and per diem costs if you’re bringing people in,” he said.

In the 12-month period ending Sept. 30, 2009, Idaho had 332 civil filings in its federal district court. Montana had 207, Wyoming 99, Alaska 127 and South Dakota 116.

In the same time period, Idaho had 135 felony criminal filings, while Montana had 115, Wyoming 85, Alaska 45, and South Dakota 149.

Complicating the matter for Idaho is that it has no senior judges to draw on for part-time service, while all those comparable states do. Montana has two senior judges, and Alaska has four.

Idaho’s two federal district judges are Edward Lodge, who’s served since 1989, and B. Lynn Winmill, who’s served since 1995. Federal district judges serve for life.

“Both Judge Lodge and Judge Winmill have been there a long time, and particularly Judge Lodge is getting up to the point where 80-hour work weeks are not his first choice,” Minnick said. Lodge, who has presided over major cases from Ruby Ridge to the Joseph Duncan multiple murder case to the Coeur d’Alene Basin contamination litigation, is in his 70s.

Idaho also has four federal magistrate judges, who serve eight-year terms. Montana has six, Wyoming eight, Alaska six, and South Dakota four.

Idaho’s federal district judges, including visiting judges brought in from other jurisdictions, presided over 96 trials in 2009, according to court records, a 30 percent increase from 2008; and spent 205 days in trial, a 32 percent increase.

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