Only one of the three statewide judicial races on Idaho’s May 25 primary election ballot is a contested race. Judge John Bradbury, who is currently a district judge in the state’s second judicial district in north central Idaho, is opposing incumbent Supreme Court Justice Roger Burdick, who former Gov. Dirk Kempthorne appointed to the state’s highest court in 2003.
Bradbury wants to see several reforms to state courts. He told IdahoReporter.com that too many judges across the state are gaining their seats through appointments rather than elections, and that appointed judges rarely face challengers in elections.
The Idaho Judicial Council makes recommendations to the governor for vacancies to state courts. The council, comprised of the chief justice of the Idaho Supreme Court, a state district judge, two lawyers, and three non-lawyers, also handles complaints filed against judges, but does not make those grievances public. Bradbury said those complaints shouldn’t be kept secret.
Judicial Council member Philip Reberger told an Idaho Senate panel earlier this year that keeping complaints confidential prevents needless public outcry about judges’ conduct. “If you were to air your dirty laundry in public prematurely, the confidence in Idaho’s judiciary could be undermined unnecessarily,” Reberger said.
Burdick said on his campaign website that only the Legislature could realistically accomplish many of the reforms proposed by Bradbury. Bradbury is also a proponent of creating night and weekend courts and changing the pension system for retired judges. Bradbury agreed that state lawmakers would need to make the changes he wants to see to state courts, but said that the judiciary needs to encourage the Legislature to make reforms.
Bradbury lost a 2008 election against Supreme Court Justice Joel Horton by 253 votes. Judicial races are decided in Idaho’s primary election, not the November general election. Bradbury said Burdick is mounting a more active campaign and is unsure how close the race will be. Bradbury said he feels Burdick has been part of a dysfunctional judicial system for more than two decades.
Burdick has been part of Idaho courts since becoming a magistrate judge for Jerome County in 1981. The chairs of the state Republican and Democratic parties are backing Burdick, the incumbent justice, who has also received endorsements from 14 state lawmakers and 25 county prosecuting attorneys.
Bradbury said another problem with the makeup of the current Supreme Court is that all five justices are from the Treasure Valley or Twin Falls. Bradbury owns houses in Grangeville and Lewiston and said Idaho is a geographically diverse state, and should have justices from north and east Idaho on the state’s highest court.
Bradbury said the shrinking state budget for the judiciary affects services to rural counties, including special courts dealing with mental health and drug abuse, more severely than urban areas.
Idaho courts would see a $3.1 million drop in state funding in the next budget, which starts in July. One expense for the state courts is the salary for judges. Judges in Idaho earn more than $100,000 a year, but their salaries lag behind what some lawyers earn. Bradbury said he’s not sure if the state should pay judges more, but said lawyers are leery of becoming judges because of the lower pay.
Idaho district court judges earned a salary of $112,000 in 2009, court of appeals judges $118,000 and Supreme Court justices $119,000. The judiciary requested a 1 percent increase for judges, which would have cost the state $185,300. Gov. Butch Otter and lawmakers rejected that pay increase, as they did for most other state workers.
Bradbury ran into trouble with the Supreme Court and the Judicial Council for not spending enough time in his listed house in Grangeville. He was elected to his district judge position based on his residency in Idaho County, but often lived in his home in Lewiston, which is in Nez Perce County. The court ordered Bradbury to live the majority of the year in Grangeville. Bradbury said he followed the high court’s order. He said he spent the night in Lewiston to shorten his commute to the courthouse in Orofino, where he said he had a high workload of cases.
The only other contested judicial election on the May primary is for Bradbury’s current district judge position.