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Eye on Boise: Bipartisan panel picked Idaho’s last federal district judge

With all the questions being raised about the secret selection process Idaho Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo are using to vet candidates for the state’s next U.S. District judge, it’s worth looking at how Idaho did it the last time around.

Idaho got a new federal district judge in 1995. The late U.S. District Judge Harold Ryan, who had served since 1981, took senior status on Dec. 30, 1992, and died of cancer on April 10, 1995.

Then-Rep. Larry LaRocco, the only member of Idaho’s congressional delegation who was of the same party as Democratic President Bill Clinton, proposed the nomination of Lewiston attorney John Tait. In August 1994, Clinton nominated Tait, but the nomination languished, with opposition from then-GOP Sens. Larry Craig and Dirk Kempthorne. Tait was one of 45 Clinton judicial nominees who weren’t confirmed by the Senate during Clinton’s presidency.

After LaRocco lost his re-election bid in 1994 to Republican Helen Chenoweth, Craig and Kempthorne got the Clinton administration to withdraw the nomination and turned instead to a bipartisan nominee review commission the two had set up under guidelines of the American Judicature Society. The nine-member panel, which included five Democrats and four Republicans, in recognition that the appointment would be made by a Democratic president, considered 38 applicants, narrowed the field to six, then circulated the names of three finalists: then-state 6th District Judge B. Lynn Winmill; Idaho Attorney General Larry EchoHawk, and U.S. Magistrate Larry Boyle of Boise.

Craig told the Senate that the panel was “an extremely well-qualified and respected bipartisan commission,” which included a retired chief justice of the Idaho Supreme Court; a former U.S. attorney; senior members of the bar from both parties; current members of the Idaho Judicial Council; and the chairs of the judiciary committees in the Idaho House and Senate.

“It was the unanimous decision of the commission that Judge B. Lynn Winmill is extremely well qualified for the position,” Craig told the Senate. Winmill’s selection was hailed by all sides, though his background as a Democrat was unquestioned – he was a former county Democratic Party chairman before he became a judge. Craig called him a “long-needed federal judge who is exceptionally well-qualified, honest, hard-working and a community leader,” and told senators, “Although he has an unquestionable Democratic credential, the Republican governor of Idaho also sends his full and unqualified support for this judge.” That was then-Gov. Phil Batt.

Kempthorne called Winmill “an outstanding nominee,” and told the Senate, “Judge Winmill is a judge Idaho and the nation need.” By the time Winmill was confirmed by the Senate in August 1995, the judgeship had been vacant for two and a half years. Idaho has only two federal district judges.

Law without signature

The final bill that Gov. Butch Otter took action on from this year’s regular legislative session was SB 1175, the budget bill for the state Department of Administration. Otter allowed the bill to become law without his signature, something he does rarely – just three other bills this year received that treatment – in order to send a message about his misgivings about the measure. But Otter offered no explanation on the Administration budget bill, and remained mum until questioned by reporters a week later at his news conference to announce a May 18 special session.

The budget bill, which passed the Senate 35-0 and the House 61-8, cuts state funds to the Administration Department by 66.2 percent from this year’s level, and total funds by 31.1 percent. A big piece of the cut was the removal of the Idaho Education Network, the failed statewide school broadband network, from the department amid legal problems and millions of dollars in losses to the state. That program was handed instead to the office of state schools Superintendent Sherri Ybarra. Under the Department of Education’s guidance, schools contracted with vendors of their choice and ended up with big savings and more bandwidth.

“I reluctantly agreed with the Legislature to move some things out of Admin, the IEN,” Otter said. “I know that I’m going to be going back after the interim, between now and next Jan. 1, and ask the Legislature to reconsider where we’re going to put that.” He noted that a state task force is studying the issue. “So it was just an effort to say, y’know, I didn’t really agree with you moving that. I understand, but I didn’t really agree.”

Betsy Russell covers Idaho news from the state capitol in Boise and writes the Eye on Boise blog. She can be reached at bzrussell@gmail.com.