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Four finalists named for much-sought Idaho Supreme Court opening

UPDATED: Thu., July 27, 2017, 2:58 p.m.

The Idaho Judicial Council, chaired by Chief Justice Roger Burdick, interviews 7th District Judge Greg Moeller in the Idaho Supreme Court’s courtroom on Tuesday, July 25; he was one of 13 applicants for an opening on the high court, and one of four selected for a short list of finalists Thursday by the council. (Betsy Z. Russell)
The Idaho Judicial Council, chaired by Chief Justice Roger Burdick, interviews 7th District Judge Greg Moeller in the Idaho Supreme Court’s courtroom on Tuesday, July 25; he was one of 13 applicants for an opening on the high court, and one of four selected for a short list of finalists Thursday by the council. (Betsy Z. Russell)

BOISE – Three state district judges and one Boise attorney were named finalists Thursday for a much-sought-after opening on the Idaho Supreme Court.

The announcement followed two days of interviews of 13 applicants by the Idaho Judicial Council. “In all the ones I’ve gone through, this is the strongest group of people I’ve ever seen,” said Tony Cantrill, executive director of the seven-member council.

The pool of candidates included six sitting district judges, one current Idaho Court of Appeals judge and six attorneys from around the state. Gov. Butch Otter will make the final selection, and is scheduled to receive the list of finalists Monday. The new justice will take office at the end of August, when current Justice Daniel Eismann retires, and serve out the remainder of his term before standing for election in 2018 for a full six-year term.

Here are the four finalists:

Boise attorney Rebecca Rainey, a partner in the law firm Fisher Rainey Hudson, is a decorated U.S. Army veteran who holds a master’s degree in international relations and natural security affairs, along with a law degree. Her practice focuses on civil litigation and appeals. She’s also been a partner at Moffat, Thomas specializing in business and commercial litigation, and is an adjunct professor at Concordia University School of Law in Boise.

Moscow’s John Stegner, 2nd District Judge, has been a district judge since 1997. Since 2002, he has presided over the Latah County drug court, and he lectures at the University of Idaho, from which he earned his law degree. In 2012, he won the Granata Award, the Idaho court system’s top annual award for professionalism by a trial court judge.

Rexburg’s Greg Moeller, 7th District Judge, has been a district judge since 2009. He was previously a partner in the law firm of Rigby, Andrus and Moeller in Rexburg. Moeller holds both bachelor’s and law degrees from Brigham Young University, and has served as an adjunct faculty member at BYU-Idaho.

Twin Falls’ Judge Richard Bevan, 5th District Administrative Judge, has been a district judge since 2003, and had previously practiced law in Twin Falls and served as the elected county prosecutor. He holds both bachelor’s and law degrees from Brigham Young University. Bevan was among those considered by Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch for nomination as a federal district judge. That nomination ended up going to 6th District Judge David Nye of Pocatello.

Among those not making the short list was current Court of Appeals Judge Sergio Gutierrez, who ran unsuccessfully for the Idaho Supreme Court in a four-way race in 2016. During his interview, Judicial Council member Phil Reberger said Gutierrez, who was making his seventh appearance before the council to interview for a judicial position, is “certainly persistent.”

Gutierrez, Idaho’s first and only Latino judge, said he loves his job as a Court of Appeals judge, but wants to have more impact on improving court access for all in Idaho by stepping up from the state’s second-highest to its highest court.

Stegner outlined a three-part agenda to the council, should he be appointed to the high court, offering the most detailed and extensive proposals for court system improvements of any of the 13 candidates during their interviews. He said he wants to work on improving uniformity in criminal sentencing in Idaho, saying, “I think we give almost unfettered discretion to district judges, and then we have almost no review.”

He called for judicial performance evaluations, saying, “I think as a district judge, we live in the ivory tower and most of what we hear is flattery – and most of it is wrong. I think we ought to be constantly trying to improve.”

And he said he’s a proponent of specialty courts, having operated drug and mental health courts for years in north-central Idaho. “I know that Justice Eismann was a drug court judge,” Stegner said. “I hope that whoever is chosen can take up the mantle for Justice Eismann – he has been a remarkable spokesman for that.”

During Rainey’s interview, council members noted that she’s appeared before the Supreme Court numerous times, and asked about her military background, including being named Pacific Command Soldier of the Year in 2002.

“It was a process similar to this,” Rainey responded, though clarifying that it focused on such factors as field skills, shooting and physical fitness. “This’ll be a breeze then,” said Chief Justice Roger Burdick, who chairs the council.

Asked by council member Phil Reberger about judicial temperament and demeanor, Rainey said, “It’s essential for litigants, both the parties and attorneys, to have an appreciation that they’re being heard. … My approach to that is through reasoned dialogue … asking questions in a way that demonstrates to the public that you understand the need for the public to appreciate how the process works.”

Moeller was asked by Burdick about his background in water law, which he detailed. He told the council he’s the only candidate who’s tried a murder case both as a defense attorney and a judge, and the only one with extensive water law experience, which he said is a need on the court since the retirement of former Chief Justice Jim Jones, though he also noted that Burdick has that background as well.

During Bevan’s interview, Reberger told Bevan his application was “the best I’ve read in a long time.” And Burdick told Bevan that when the council asks applicants for 5th District judgeships about role models they’d like to emulate, “Your name comes up 100 percent of the time.”

“What do you think is the secret of being a good trial judge?” Burdick asked Bevan. Bevan responded that he’s always approached the role keeping in mind what it was like to be on the other side of the bench and to offer respect to those appearing before him in court. “That courtesy goes so far,” he said. Plus, he said, “I take the time to lay out the rationale, the reasoning for why I’m ruling the way that I am.” That transparency, he said, helps instill confidence in the courts and their decisions.

Idaho’s Supreme Court has five justices.


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