May 16, 2010 in Idaho Voices

Court contender keeps ho-hum election interesting

By The Spokesman-Review
 

BOISE - Idaho’s May 25 election is not just the primary election - it’s also the final say on the nonpartisan race for the Idaho Supreme Court and an array of local judgeships.

One of the two seats on the high court – that of Justice Roger Burdick – is hotly contested this year by court reform advocate John Bradbury, a 2nd District judge from Lewiston who narrowly lost two years ago to then-recently appointed Justice Joel Horton. Justice Jim Jones is unopposed for re-election to the high court.

Oddly, in this nonpartisan race, Idaho’s system means that the decision in the Burdick-Bradbury race will happen in a low-turnout election that’s dominated by each party’s most committed partisans. Idaho’s primaries typically see less than half the voter turnout of the general election, and the primary turnout has been falling each election for the past decade; in 2008, just 25 percent of registered voters cast votes in the primary, down from 33.4 percent in 2000.

Under Idaho’s system, if there were multiple candidates running for the high court and none got a 50 percent majority, the two top vote-getters from the primary would advance to the general election. But with just two candidates facing off, one or the other is assured of 50 percent, so there’ll be no runoff.

Burdick, 62, has served on the high court since he was appointed by then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, a Republican, in 2003; he won election to a full term on the court in 2004. He previously served 10 years as a district judge in Twin Falls County, where he was appointed by then-Gov. Cecil Andrus, a Democrat; he also served 12 years as a magistrate judge, and previously served as a public defender and as an elected county prosecutor. He was the state’s water judge for three years, presiding over the Snake River Basin Adjudication, and is the author of four major court decisions favoring open records.

Of the seven times Burdick has stood for election, this is the first time he’s been opposed. His campaign co-chairmen are Norm Semanko, chairman of the Idaho Republican Party, and Keith Roark, chairman of the Idaho Democratic Party.

Asked about his bipartisan backing both now and throughout his career, Burdick said, “I would like to think it’s because I’m a good judge.”

He did run as a Republican when he ran for prosecutor in Jerome County in 1980; he took on a longtime incumbent who’d been involved in a controversy over a chain letter that Burdick maintained was illegal, and during the course of the campaign the incumbent decided to retire, leaving Burdick unopposed.

Burdick is a Boise High School graduate with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Colorado and a law degree from the University of Idaho.

Bradbury, 73, has a more contentious political history. An advocate of judicial election rather than appointment, he was elected district judge in Lewiston twice, defeating an incumbent to win the position, and has served there for seven years. In 2008, he lost to Horton by just 253 votes, receiving 49.9 percent to Horton’s 50.1 percent.

Bradbury ran for the state Legislature in 1992, challenging conservative Democratic Rep. Chuck Cuddy in the primary; Bradbury took 43 percent of the vote to Cuddy’s 57 percent.

The Orofino native served with the U.S. Army in Korea after the Korean War, was the founding partner of a 35-lawyer firm in Anchorage and Seattle, and holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Idaho and a law degree from University of Michigan.

As a crusader for judicial reform, Bradbury’s been a noisy opponent of Idaho’s judicial selection process, secrecy in the handling of complaints about judges, and the Supreme Court’s handling of a long-standing school facilities lawsuit in which the court declared the state’s funding system unconstitutional, but never followed up by ruling on whether the state Legislature had fixed it.

This year, the Supreme Court itself has sent out missives responding to Bradbury’s campaign claims, under a new court protocol for responding to “unwarranted or unfair attacks on the judicial system.”

Bradbury – who was forced to move to Grangeville last year after a dispute with the state Judicial Council over residency requirements that Bradbury said hampered his ability to handle his court caseload efficiently – stands by his criticisms of the court system. “They’ve never had to answer anything until I ran and started questioning the system,” he declared.

Bradbury’s also made an issue of the lack of any justices from eastern or northern Idaho on the current Supreme Court, which he says is a first in the state’s history.

“I don’t think there’s a state in the union that is more diverse religiously, politically, culturally and geographically, and that diversity enriches us as a people,” Bradbury said. Yet, he said, all current justices are from the Twin Falls or Boise areas. “I think that’s a symptom of what is wrong with the system.”

Burdick says many of Bradbury’s criticisms are of things outside the court’s control, like the judicial selection system established by state law, and the governor’s choices on judicial appointments.

Burdick is a strong defender of the state’s court system, which he says has been innovative and efficient, largely because of a structure that encourages local judges to propose better ways to do things, which then “bubble up” through court committees for possible statewide adoption.

“It’s a very good system and I support it,” Burdick said.

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