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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Open Idaho’s closed U.S. judge nomination process

A year ago, Stanley Bastian of Wenatchee was confirmed by the U.S. Senate for a federal judgeship after an open, bipartisan nominating process. Contrast that with Idaho, where a secretive process to replace U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge is drawing fire for apparently ignoring female candidates.

Idaho is the only state in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to never have a woman on the bench. Whether this is blatant discrimination is hard to tell because the process is closed to public scrutiny.

As Suzanne Wrass, press secretary for Sen. Jim Risch, told The Spokesman-Review, “The judgeship application process is entirely confidential.”

Sen. Mike Crapo’s office said the same. So speculation has replaced information.

At least five women have applied for the job, but none of them has heard a peep since submitting applications in December and January. Sources indicate the four finalists are men, but they’ve all declined to comment. Once Risch and Crapo make their decision, they will send a recommendation to President Barack Obama, who can reject the pick.

The worry is that the senators will select someone who is unacceptable, causing the district to go without a judge for awhile, perhaps until there is a new president. That’s a big problem in a district that only has two judges. U.S. District Court Judge Lynn Winmill would shoulder the entire load in the meantime.

Under Washington’s system, this is unlikely to occur. Suspicions are kept to a minimum because the process is open, and it requires buy-in from both parties.

Before Bastian was selected, Murray, Cantwell and then-U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings agreed on the eight members of the nominating commission – four Republicans and four Democrats – and announced their names. The commission advertised for candidates, vetted them and issued a recommendation. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell conducted interviews and settled on Bastian, who was supported by all members of the commission.

Eighteen states use a judicial nominating commission for federal appointments, according to the National Center for State Courts. Similar screening processes are used in several other states. Because they are depoliticized, commissions can focus on candidates’ competence, experience and how they handle themselves in court.

But many states, including Idaho, keep the process under the tight control of its U.S. senators. Unfortunately, this raises suspicions that party preference and political relationships are paramount.

In 2010, Gonzaga University law professor Rosanna Peterson became the first woman to serve on Eastern Washington’s U.S. District Court bench. If charges of sexism had arisen before that, observers could at least see that women were given a fair chance.

An open process squeezes out conspiracy theories and suspicions of good ol’ boy decision-making.

Idaho should take note.

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