It is hard to recruit district court judges; SB 1347 will make it even harder

By Jim Jones
JJ Commontater

Jim JonesEvery business, interest group, civic organization, legal group, education entity, government agency and living-and-breathing human being in the Gem State should take heed of the chronic shortage of experienced and competent lawyers seeking to be district judges. It has become harder each year to recruit good candidates for district court positions because of a variety of factors–low pay, high stress, burnout and the prospect of having to gain the office through a contested election. The situation will only get worse if Senate Bill 1347 is approved by the Legislature this session.

For those who may not know how Idaho’s court system is organized, there are three components. Magistrate courts, which currently have 101 magistrate judges, handle civil trials where up to $10,000 is at stake, plus domestic, traffic, estate, misdemeanor and a variety of other cases. District courts, with 49 district judges, handle the full range of felony and higher-stake civil trials. The appellate courts, with a total of 9 judges, handle and decide appeals from the two trial court components.

Candidates for magistrate judge are thoroughly vetted and appointed by regional magistrate commissions. Lawyers seeking positions on the district and appellate court are vetted by the Idaho Judicial Council, which sends a list of the best candidates to the Governor, who appoints from the list. These largely non-political appointment mechanisms have made Idaho’s court system one of the best in the nation.

Former Governor Otter reported on numerous occasions that he regularly received praise from other state governors about the high quality of Idaho’s judiciary. Former Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Burdick also received accolades from his counterparts in other states for the recognized excellence of Idaho judges.

To keep an excellent judiciary up and running, lawyers must be incentivized to step forward and apply for judicial positions. Most will take a pay cut of more than 50-percent from what they can make in private law practice for the privilege of serving as a judge. I did and I do not regret it. But, if it appears to potential applicants that the burdens of the job substantially outweigh the privilege of being able to perform public service, few would be willing to step forward. That is where Idaho is with district court positions.

Appellate positions–the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals–still have enough well-qualified applicants to fill court vacancies, despite the bargain basement compensation package. The same applies to the magistrate courts. The district courts simply don’t have enough competent, seasoned applicants to fill and replenish their ranks. That poses a serious danger to the ability of the district courts to do their work, and to the public that depends on those courts to decide cases quickly and competently.

Magistrate judge openings often get at least twice as many applicants as district judge openings because they are assured of a merit-based appointment process, the pay disparity is not substantial and magistrate judges do not have to face the prospect of an election contest.

On the other hand, district judges presently have a merit-based selection process that the sponsor of Senate Bill 1347 wants to largely disable by requiring district and appellate openings to be filled through contested elections. The sponsor wants to eliminate a retirement benefit that was put in place in 2000 as a recruitment incentive for district and appellate judges, even though she would leave in place a similar recruitment incentive that was adopted for magistrate judges in 2006.

Lawyers could be excused for not wanting to apply for a district court position under such uncertainty as to job benefits and whether the benefits would be subject to future revision during their service. The failure of the Legislature to give all Idaho judges the seven-percent cost-of-living increase that all other state employees received in 2022 did not go unnoticed by those lawyers.

But there is yet another significant consideration for district courts – the workload.

District judges have the highest-pressure job in Idaho’s court system. They deal with heavy duty felonies, like the Maybell and Kohberger murder cases, as well as complicated and high-dollar civil disputes that are litigated to the nth degree by deep-pocket parties. Handling the everyday work of managing a complex case and responding to the incessant demands of the lawyers involved takes long hours – nights and weekends, which leads to stress and burnout. Who would want to take a pay cut of more than 50-percent for that kind of miserable job?

Legislators should be considering measures to make all court positions more attractive to a broader range of competent, seasoned lawyers. Special emphasis should be placed on getting more applicants for district court positions, because that is where the recruitment problem has reached crisis proportions. Pursuing measures designed to discourage accomplished lawyers from applying for district court positions, where they are needed the most, does not make sense.

The Stand up for Courts group, composed of Butch Otter, Patti Anne Lodge, Denton Darrington, Phil Reberger and a host of other concerned citizens, is urging that Senate Bill 1347 be stopped in its tracks in the Senate Judiciary and Rules Committee to help preserve Idaho’s excellent judiciary.