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News >  Idaho

Idaho bar survey ranks three high court hopefuls highly, but not a fourth

Curt McKenzie (Betsy Z. Russell)
Curt McKenzie (Betsy Z. Russell)

Three of the candidates seeking an open Idaho Supreme Court seat were highly rated in a survey of members of the Idaho State Bar, but the fourth drew much lower ratings from lawyers across the state.

State Sen. Curt McKenzie got the lowest ratings, scoring a statewide overall average of 1.9 out of 4.

Rupert attorney Robyn Brody and Idaho Court of Appeals Judge Sergio Gutierrez tied for the top ratings, with matching statewide overall averages of 3.58 out of 4. Clive Strong, head of the natural resources division for the Idaho Attorney General’s office, had the second highest ratings at 3.27.

A total of 581 state bar members responded to this year’s survey, which asked them to rate the candidates in the May 17 primary for Supreme Court in four areas: integrity and independence; knowledge and understanding of the law; judicial temperament and demeanor; and legal ability and experience.

The state bar has conducted the surveys for every contested judicial election in Idaho since 2006. In the three previous contested Idaho Supreme Court races – each of which was a contest of just two candidates – the candidate with the highest rating in the survey won every time.

The most recent contested race was in 2014, when Boise attorney William “Breck” Seineger challenged Justice Joel Horton, who had been appointed to the court in 2007. The bar survey gave Horton a 3.44 average rating out of 4; Seineger scored 2.51. Horton won the election with 65.8 percent of the vote to Seineger’s 34.2 percent.

“The Idaho State Bar does not interpret or express any opinion about the … results and makes no endorsements,” the bar said in a news release.

Diane Minnich, Idaho State Bar executive director, when asked about the significance of results that show one of the four candidates trailing in ratings by such a large margin, said, “We don’t have any particular opinion on what they mean. This is what the lawyers say. … Everybody will have their own opinion about what that means.”

Aman McLeod, a visiting professor of law at the University of Idaho who researches judicial elections and politics, said lawyers may not “consider him to be a serious jurist” because unlike the other candidates in the nonpartisan race, he’s been appealing directly to the same Republican constituency he’s courted as a state senator.

“The bar looks askance at the kind of campaigning that Sen. McKenzie is doing,” McLeod said.

Here are the scores by category:

For integrity and independence, Gutierrez, who now serves on Idaho’s second-highest court, came out on top with a rating of 3.62; Brody was close behind him with 3.59; Strong had 3.27 and McKenzie had 1.78.

For knowledge and understanding of the law, Brody earned the top rating of 3.6; followed by Gutierrez, 3.48; Strong, 3.26; and McKenzie, 2.0.

Gutierrez was tops for judicial temperament and demeanor, at 3.68. Brody was second at 3.58; followed by Strong, 3.27; with McKenzie trailing at 1.94.

In the category of legal ability and experience, Brody had the top score of 3.54; followed closely by Gutierrez at 3.53. Strong got 3.29; and McKenzie scored 1.89.

Rather than giving a rating in a particular category, respondents to the survey had the option of choosing “I do not know candidate well enough in this area.” Brody had the highest I-don’t-knows; Gutierrez had the lowest.

May 17 is also the date of Idaho’s party primary elections. But any Idaho citizen may go to the polls and vote in the nonpartisan Idaho Supreme Court race, regardless of whether or not they’re affiliated with a party. If none of the four rivals gets a majority, the top two candidates with the most votes will face off in the November general election.

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