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Idaho House passes bill changing judicial appointment process

Rep. Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell, sponsored House Bill 782 on the House floor.  (Courtesy of Idaho in Session)
Rep. Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell, sponsored House Bill 782 on the House floor. (Courtesy of Idaho in Session)
By Kelcie Moseley-Morris Idaho Capital Sun

The Idaho House of Representatives passed a bill that makes systematic changes to the judicial appointment process on Friday, less than 48 hours after it was introduced and without input from the judiciary branch.

House Bill 782 passed on a 44-24 vote, with bipartisan opposition and support. It makes several changes to the Idaho Judicial Council, which handles complaints against judicial members and guides the selection process for appointments when there is a judicial vacancy. The council was established in 1967 in an effort to ensure a nonpartisan selection process.

The bill was introduced in the House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday and voted out of committee with no recommendation on Thursday afternoon. The House suspended rules on a 50-16 vote to bring it from the second reading calendar to the floor for immediate consideration on Friday.

Rep. Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell, sponsored the bill with House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star. Chaney said the changes are necessary to bring a wider diversity of perspectives to the council and to bring more transparency to the process.

Under the legislation, the council would be expanded from seven to 11 members, including one district judge, one magistrate judge and four members of the Idaho State Bar. Instead of those members being appointed by the board of commissioners of the Idaho State Bar, the positions would be nominated by the Idaho Supreme Court and appointed by the governor with the consent of the Idaho Senate. The non-attorney members would also be chosen by the governor with the consent of the Senate, which requires a vote by the Senate Judiciary and Rules Committee and then a majority vote in the full Senate.

Several legislators pointed to the rushed nature of the bill, asking why it needed to be passed so quickly this late in the session. Others during debate questioned the idea of placing much more power with the governor’s office over judicial appointments and asked why a process that had worked well for decades needed to be fixed.

Chaney said a previous version of the bill, House Bill 600, was introduced on Feb. 11 and presented to the chief justice of the Idaho Supreme Court. According to Idaho Supreme Court spokesperson Nate Poppino, Supreme Court leadership weighed in on the previous version of the bill. However, House Bill 782 is a significantly different bill with more changes that were not presented to court officials before Wednesday afternoon.

According to an email, Supreme Court Chief Justice G. Richard Bevan reviewed House Bill 600 in February and suggested a blue ribbon committee be formed that would examine judicial retirement and the judicial council. The committee would be composed of 12 members, including judges, lawyers and members of the public and would meet in the interim after the legislative session.

“They would not come out and engage, they would only offer to delay,” Chaney said of the judiciary during debate.

After about an hour of debate, Rep. Marc Gibbs, R-Grace, said he changed his mind on how he would vote during debate because he didn’t like that the judicial salaries were tied into the same bill.

“This has been one of the few debates in the 14 years I’ve been here that I think may have actually had compelling interest, and that has probably changed my mind today,” Gibbs said.

Moyle closed debate by saying part of the problem is that hardly anyone runs against incumbent judges, and the changes were meant to add more transparency and accountability to judges who are appointed.

“The power of incumbency prevents people from wanting to step up, that’s why some of you in this room don’t even have primaries. It works, it has power and an effect, and that’s why this bill addresses that and helps make it better,” Moyle said. “… This bill, in my opinion, doesn’t go far enough. If we want to make the process better, if we want to have better judges, quit whining and vote for the bill.”

The legislation now heads to the Senate, where it will likely be heard by the Judiciary and Rules Committee early next week. Legislative leadership has indicated a target of March 25 as the date to adjourn for the year.

Idaho Capital Sun is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Idaho Capital Sun maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Christine Lords for questions: info@idahocapitalsun.com. Follow Idaho Capital Sun on Facebook and Twitter.

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