BOISE - The nation’s federal courts have declared a “judicial emergency” in Idaho due to the vacancy in one of the state’s two U.S. district judge positions, created when U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge took senior status on July 3 – with no replacement yet named.
It’s one of 28 judicial emergencies currently in effect across the nation; it was declared Tuesday morning by the Judicial Conference of the U.S. Courts. Because Idaho has only two federal district judges, Lodge’s move leaves it with just one, Chief Judge B. Lynn Winmill.
A law professor at the University of Richmond who watches federal judicial appointments says Lodge gave plenty of notice that he planned to take senior status – he announced it last Sept. 24. Carl Tobias, Williams Professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, said Idaho’s two GOP senators are at fault for taking so long to recommend possible replacements to the White House, resulting in the emergency declaration.
“Judge Lodge is really well respected and he gave them plenty of time, and they just frittered it away, they didn’t take advantage of it,” Tobias said. “If they’d moved quickly when he announced and formed a committee or whatever the vetting process was, we wouldn’t be where we are now. That’s the proper way to do it.
Idaho is one of just three states with only two U.S. district judges; it hasn’t gotten an additional judgeship in 60 years, though its caseloads have soared.
Last fall, Idaho GOP Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch announced they’d be screening potential candidates for Lodge’s seat to recommend to the White House for possible appointment, in advance of his planned move to senior status. Their process has been entirely secret, and they’ve refused to comment on its status, though it’s been widely rumored in Idaho’s legal community that they’ve just recently submitted four names to the president for consideration. Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, who is among the state’s highest-ranking elected officials who is of the same party as President Barack Obama, has confirmed he’s submitted three names of his own to the White House.
The White House press office, contacted last week, had no comment on the pending appointment. Politics in Washington, D.C. have slowed the confirmation of Obama’s judicial appointees.
Federal district judges are lifetime appointees; they are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.
Lodge hasn’t gone far since taking senior status – he’s now presiding over the six-week terrorism trial of Fazliddin Kurbanov, which began with jury selection Monday in Boise and opening arguments on Tuesday.
Idaho has no senior district judges other than Lodge, because all of its past ones have died; the last one, Judge Harold Ryan, died in 1995. The only other alternative for handling the court’s caseload, Tobias said, is bringing in judges from other jurisdictions, which parties typically don’t like. “You’d rather have your own judges,” he said. “And you can’t run a court very long in that way.”
Tobias said the situation is unfair to Lodge, 81. “It means he doesn’t get senior status. The whole point of senior status is to get a half-load and bring on new blood and help refresh the court,” the law professor said. “He’s such a devoted public servant, I’m sure he’ll just bear up and continue to do it. But that’s just not fair to him or for the system, really.”
Tobias predicted long delays for federal court cases in Idaho, particularly civil cases, as criminal cases take precedence.
“If they want to wait for 2017 for some Republican president to appoint, I think it’ll get ugly,” he said. “I think at some point the Idaho Bar is going to get up on its hind legs and say, ‘This has got to stop.’ … It’s not fair to people who are litigating cases and companies that are litigating cases in federal court.”
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