BOISE – The very definition of fairness was hotly debated by two rivals for the Idaho Supreme Court on Friday, as Justice Joel Horton and challenger Breck Seiniger faced off in a televised debate.
Horton called Seiniger “a representative of special interests,” prompting Seiniger to retort, “I guess the special interests we’re talking about are the average, ordinary citizens like you people watching out there, who get hurt, who have a problem with the government, who have a property dispute – that’s who I represent.”
The debate, part of the “Idaho Debates” sponsored by the Idaho Press Club and the League of Women Voters, was broadcast statewide on Idaho Public Television; Idaho’s primary election is May 20. In addition to primary races for partisan offices, the election includes the final decision in the nonpartisan Supreme Court race.
Horton said, “This election represents a simple choice: Should I be replaced by a personal injury lawyer who has an agenda to represent the folks that he’s just told you about, small, ordinary people? The reality is that as justices of the Idaho Supreme Court, we don’t advocate or represent any particular interest. We represent justice.”
Seiniger said if elected, he would “broaden the perspective of the court, which has been for the last 25 years, in terms of judicial appointments, limited to sitting judges and lawyers from large Boise law firms.” He’s been a lawyer in private practice for 35 years. “I’ve handled almost every kind of case,” he said.
Horton stressed his record as a prosecutor and judge. “For the past 28 years I’ve been a public servant in this state, starting first as a prosecutor before moving to the bench,” he said. He’s been a judge since 1994, and joined the Idaho Supreme Court in 2007.
The two agreed on some issues: Both said this year’s legislation to begin reforming Idaho’s public defender system was an important first step, but doesn’t finish the job. Both spoke highly of the “justice reinvestment” project, in which all three branches of Idaho’s state government are working to reform a system that now sees non-violent offenders spending twice as long behind bars as they do in other states.
They clashed over conflict of interest issues, with Seiniger saying Horton should have recused himself from a 2008 case, and Horton disagreeing, saying, “It is not the clear-cut case Mr. Seiniger would like to pretend.”
The case involved Simplot Corp.; after the court had heard the case, but before the written decision was issued, Horton named Simplot associate general counsel Dave Spurling as his campaign treasurer. “There would have clearly been a perception of a difficulty if Mr. Spurling had anything at all to do with that case,” Horton said, but he was just “one of thousands of employees of Simplot.”
Seiniger’s campaign treasurer, Jason Monteleone, is a former lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho. Asked if that would present a conflict for him as a justice when ACLU cases came before the court, Seiniger said he thought not. “We had an understanding I would never sit on one of his cases, no matter what,” Seiniger said. “Actually, the connection you’re talking about is not something I’ve thought about.”
Horton said the greatest challenges facing Idaho’s courts are resources and felony sentencing practices; he’s chairing a court committee on felony sentencing. “We’re focusing on evidence-based sentencing practices that will reduce crime and save the taxpayers money,” he said.
Seiniger said he sees the greatest challenge as the “layer upon layer of pretrial procedures” that litigants including those in medical malpractice cases must face before getting to a jury trial; Horton said the Legislature decides that, not the Supreme Court.