The Idaho Judicial Council today wrapped up its interviews with applicants for an opening on the Idaho Supreme Court, interviewing seven hopefuls yesterday and six today. The seven-member council will announce the four it selects as most qualified tomorrow; the names will be forwarded to Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, who will appoint the justice.
Here are some highlights from today’s interviews:
Rebecca Rainey, a Boise attorney who’s appeared before the high court numerous times, was asked about her military background, including being named Pacific Command Soldier of the Year. “It was a process similar to this,” she said, though focusing 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. When Rainey was asked about bar survey results questioning whether she’s “seasoned” enough to be a justice, she said, “I expected that.” She’s been practicing law for 11 years now, she said. “I think my life experiences, the things that I’ve gone through and the way that I personally approach problems in my life makes me an excellent candidate for this position.”
2nd District Judge John Stegner outlined a three-part agenda to the council, should he be appointed to the high court. 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.” Eismann is the justice who is retiring; the new appointee will complete his term.
Boise attorney Jeffrey Thomson said he’s appeared before the Idaho Supreme Court nearly 30 times, and also several times before the Idaho Court of Appeals and the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. “I’ve been involved in appeals throughout my career,” he said. “I’m pretty certain I have more appellate experience,” and could “hit the ground running.” When questioned about primarily working in insurance defense, Thomson said, “My position as defense counsel doesn’t define me as a person. … I would have no problem putting that hat on a rack and exchanging it for a robe.”
7th District Judge Joel Tingey said he’d bring the perspective of eastern Idaho, which he said doesn’t always match up with what happens in Boise or Twin Falls. As an example, he said problem-solving courts in his district operate post-plea, so some policies promulgated by the court for other systems don’t apply. Council member R. Bruce Owens said the council received a letter from Bart Davis, the newly nominated U.S. Attorney for Idaho, suggesting it’s time for the court to appoint someone from eastern Idaho to the high court. Owens said, “If regional representation should be considered, should we also consider ethnic representation, should we also consider gender representation?” Tingey said maybe, but he thought using ethnicity or nationality as a factor would be “problematic.” But he said he saw an advantage to geographical diversity.
Tingey also questioned some bar survey results that he said weren’t as sterling as he expected on the question of personal habits and lifestyle. “I live a pretty sterile life – I don’t engage in any kind of risky behavior,” he said. “So when I saw about 10 responses saying average or worse, I thought, I just don’t know that that’s an honest answer.” As he shook hands with the council members after his interview, Burdick told him with a smile, “I have no questions about your personal life.”
3rd District Judge Susan Wiebe of Fruitland said she worked as a city attorney and deputy prosecutor in Coeur d’Alene, and as a deputy attorney general and employee of a large law firm in Boise before operating a practice in Caldwell for 16 years. Her practice included lots of guardianships, divorces, adoptions and terminations of parental rights. “I had a philosophy, to try to keep their eyes on the big picture, because when people go through a divorce they’re just a little crazy,” she said. “They’re sad and they’re mad,” and they lose sight of the fact that they’ll be co-parenting with their ex-spouse for years to come. “The majority of my practice was in front of magistrates,” she said, leading to questions when she first applied to be a judge of whether she’d handled enough major litigation. She’s now been a district judge for eight years, “being involved in major litigation,” Wiebe said. “I have a lot of varied experience.”
4th District Judge Jason Scott said his analysis skills are strong, and he believes that would make him “a credit to the court.” He said, “I am a very big proponent of the idea that the world … and actually the legal world is shades of gray – it’s not often black and white. … I think that’s an important mindset to have.” Scott noted that he’s only been on the bench three years. “There have been applicants who have spent much longer on the bench than I have,” he said. “I would be a fool to contend more isn’t better – of course more is better.” But he said he believes he has the “baseline experience” to be a justice, and though some consider him “a little boyish for the job I have now,” he’s “nevertheless suited for this job.”
After the two days of interviews – in addition to poring over the applicants’ applications and conducting background checks – Idaho Judicial Council Executive Director Tony Cantrill said, “In all the ones I’ve gone through, this is the strongest group of people I’ve ever seen.”
The 13-member applicant pool includes six sitting district judges, one Idaho Court of Appeals judge (Sergio Gutierrez), and six attorneys from around the state. Whoever is appointed will run for a full six-year term in the 2018 election, to begin in 2019.