Even after becoming a lawyer and then a magistrate, Linda Copple Trout never dreamed about being on the Idaho Supreme Court - much less running the place.
“I didn’t even think it was a possibility. It was an exclusive group and it seemed to draw very, very qualified people,” she said. “I guess I just didn’t have the confidence in myself early on to think that I might be selected for such a position.”
But then-Gov. Cecil Andrus made then-2nd District Judge Trout Idaho’s first female justice on Sept. 1, 1992 - her 41st birthday - and on Feb. 1 the court’s youngest member becomes the first woman to lead the state’s entire judicial system.
As she prepares to move down the hall from her relatively small office to the expansive chief justice suite on the second floor of the Supreme Court building, a clearly self-assured Trout has no grand strategy for change. She likes the way things have been done by outgoing Chief Justice Charles McDevitt, who is retiring from the court Sept. 1.
Trout, 45, sees the differences between herself and the 65-year-old McDevitt - a magisterial-looking former legislator whose term as chief has been marked by tension between the courts and legislators - as more a matter of style than substance.
“I don’t want what I say to sound critical because I think he’s done a fine job, but in terms of our personal style I am probably more approachable,” Trout said.
She remembers how, as she prepared to leave the bench in Lewiston to join the high court, she was apprehensive about joining a five-member panel that included Idaho’s own great dissenter - Justice Stephen Bistline. By the time he retired in December 1994, Bistline had become well known for oftenscathing minority opinions that sometimes were personally critical of other justices.
Trout expected the worst.
“In the back of my mind I thought, boy, there must be some real knockdown, shouting, antagonistic battles,” she said. “That was not the case at all.”
In person, Bistline couldn’t have been nicer. And Trout got an early taste of the court’s unexpected collegiality when the justices took to the road to hear oral arguments in Idaho Falls and Pocatello. They stopped at the Eastern Idaho State Fair in Blackfoot for dinner and to see the exhibits.
“I was just astonished. I thought, how many people would believe that the Supreme Court would be traipsing around the Eastern Idaho Fair, from food booth to food booth, just talking and laughing?” she said. “We all go out of our way to do things together, to get along with each other, and that really isn’t at all what I had anticipated.”
How the court considers cases also suits Trout. She intends to continue the practice of hashing out viewpoints in fairly regimented, genteel yet open round-table conferences that give every justice the chance to influence the others.
The process has led to a startling level of consensus - almost 94 percent of the court’s 1996 opinions were unanimous or 4-1 votes. Trout likes that, rejecting the idea that it indicates justices are unwilling to consider diverse viewpoints.
“Frankly, a 3-to-2 opinion isn’t worth a whole lot. I mean, someone wins and it’s certainly precedent in the state of Idaho, but it affords everyone the opportunity to think, ‘Gosh, if we could just get one to swing it would go the other way,”’ she said. “I think all five of us have a very strong preference for a 5-0 decision if that’s possible, or at least a 4-1.”
Besides, dissent can go too far. Trout prefers the effectiveness of private, reasoned discourse.
“You can get to a point, I think, where you oppose the other members of the court solely for that purpose. I mean, you just think they’re wrong, and I think it dulls the voice,” she said.
“There are people on the court now who are probably not as outspoken as Justice Bistline was, but who are every bit the advocates that he was. The difference is they don’t go fight every single battle. They pick and choose the important ones and make their voice heard on those, and I think that’s far more important.”
After spending seven years as a magistrate and two as a district judge, her own priorities as chief justice include finding a way to deal with the ever-increasing caseload of Idaho courts and involving trial judges more fully in how the system is run.
“My sense has been that at least some of the judges feel like a lot of the decisions are being made at the Supreme Court level over which they have no control or input,” Trout said. “I would like them to have more say in how things are done.”
She also expects to ask the Legislature to add a fourth judge to the Court of Appeals and for additional district judges in Boise and Coeur d’Alene. And justices now paid $83,000 a year should get more money because “the pay is just simply not competitive with what an experienced practitioner can make in private practice.”
Trout, who lives with her husband, Kim, on 80 acres near Kuna, sees no return to private practice in her own future. The Tokyo-born adopted daughter of a former Boise pediatrician expects to put in her 20 years of combined district judge and Supreme Court service for retirement, then make way for fresh blood.
“I see myself getting out and not working,” she said. “I don’t see myself going back into practice or doing anything in the law-related field. I see buying a sailboat and taking off to the South Seas.”
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