BOISE – The contested race for a seat on the Idaho Supreme Court this year has turned testy, with challenger Breck Seiniger raising a conflict-of-interest ethical issue involving Justice Joel Horton.
The justice dismisses it as nothing but a personal attack, but a national judicial ethics expert says it’s a legitimate question and in his view, the judge should have disqualified himself in the case.
“I think it’s a fair point for an opponent in an election to call out,” said Charles Geyh, a law professor at Indiana University and an expert on judicial disqualification and ethics for judges. “Is the idea that one time, six years ago, he had a lapse – should that get him out of a job? No, by itself, no.” But it’s among the factors that voters should consider, he said.
The case involved a group of asparagus farmers who sued Simplot Corp., a major force in agriculture in Idaho, after they hired Simplot to spray their asparagus and the asparagus, a 15-year-crop, died. A jury awarded the farmers $2.4 million, and found Simplot 85 percent responsible, and a subcontractor that Simplot hired to do the spraying 15 percent responsible.
Then, Simplot brought forward new evidence: A major purchaser of asparagus had signed a contract with farmers in Peru, and as a result the major processing plant in the region was closing. This was five years after the spraying incident, but Simplot argued it affected the future value of the ruined asparagus crop. The judge ordered a new trial solely on the issue of future economic damages.
The farmers appealed to the Idaho Supreme Court, which upheld the lower-court ruling, but expanded the new trial to be on all damages, not just future economic damages. The tapped-out farmers began preparing for a new trial, but then cut their losses and settled with Simplot.
Their attorney filed a motion for reconsideration with the Idaho Supreme Court, citing three issues; one of them was that Horton, the author of the Supreme Court’s opinion, was running for re-election and had named as his campaign treasurer the associate general counsel for Simplot Corp., Dave Spurling. This occurred after the court heard the case, but before the written opinion was issued. The Supreme Court rejected the motion for reconsideration without comment.
“Dave was my treasurer because he was my moot court partner in law school, not because of where he happened to work at the time,” Horton said. “That’s really where we got to know each other. We’ve been friends ever since.”
Horton says the court made its unanimous decision on the asparagus farmers’ case shortly after the arguments in February of that year, at a time when he didn’t even know he’d be challenged in the election. He named his campaign treasurer in March. The opinion was issued in May.
Seiniger’s broadsides against Horton on the issue have included campaign ads highlighting “The Horton-Simplot Connection,” and charges that Horton’s opinion ruled “in favor of Simplot.” Horton counters that the Supreme Court ruled against Simplot – upholding the lower-court verdict finding the firm responsible, as well as the lower-court judge’s decision to grant a new trial on damages.
“I don’t think the judge is being corrupt,” Geyh said. “I have no reason to doubt Justice Horton that the deal was done and he was writing the opinion. … But in terms of whether someone should be mindful of the perception problems he creates, it strikes me as just a little cavalier, in the middle of a case where you’ve got the livelihood of local farmers hanging in the balance and a corporate defendant looking for relief.”