A Senate confirmation to the state Judicial Council raised questions about how Idaho supports and chooses its judges. The Senate Judiciary and Rules Committee unanimously approved the reappointment of J. Philip Reberger on Friday to the Judicial Council, which investigates complaints against judges and helps fill court vacancies. At a Wednesday hearing, several lawmakers on the panel asked Reberger about the functions of the council and the court. Reberger has served on the Judicial Council for the past six years.
Of concern to some lawmakers on the committee is that the Judicial Council has had to fill more court vacancies in recent years. Judges on the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals stand for election every six years and district judges face election every four years. Reberger said in the last four years the council has made recommendations for 23 vacancies when judges resign in the middle of a term. Those recommendations go to Gov. Butch Otter, who makes a final selection.
“More and more of our judges are getting closer to retirement age,” Reberger told lawmakers. He said judges also prefer to resign mid-term, knowing that a successor would be appointed rather than elected.
Minority Leader Kate Kelly, D-Boise, said the increase in appointments could be reducing voters’ choices. “It seems to me that this trend is a deliberate part on the judiciary to circumvent election requirements,” she said. She said many appointed judges run unopposed in elections. "In Idaho we have a system of election of judges. It sounds like maybe there’s a systematic increase of judges resigning or retiring mid-term.”
“This is not a new approach,” Reberger told Kelly.
The Judicial Council also manages citizens’ complaints of judicial misconduct. Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Twin Falls, asked Reberger why that complaint process is done in private. “Sometimes I read in the newspaper or elsewhere that there is some sentiment that the Judicial Council is too secret,” Davis said.
“Without that confidentiality, the potential exists that immediate public outcry could run someone out on a rail without dealing with the substance properly,” Reberger said. He said some of the complaints the council receives don’t have merit. “If you were to air your dirty laundry in public prematurely, the confidence in Idaho’s judiciary could be undermined unnecessarily.”
Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, asked if the council helps new appointees adjust to the life and culture of being a judge. “It’s a very lonely existence for judges,” Lodge said. Her husband is a federal district judge. “It’s kind of a life of isolation in many ways”
“That loneliness is something a judge has to assume when they put on the black robe,” Reberger said. “Most applicants are prepared to tackle that burden and their colleagues are prepared to help them in that transition.”
Reberger also said that the council has had difficulty attracting candidates for openings in the Third Judicial District, which serves the Treasure Valley, because of the rising cost of living and flat salaries for judges. “This session I don’t expect the Legislature to deal with judicial pay,” Reberger said, but said it should be a priority going forward. The Idaho State Judiciary is requesting a 1 percent raise for judges in the next state budget, which would cost $185,300. Gov. Otter doesn’t recommend that salary increase. Idaho district court judges earned a salary of $112,000 in 2009, court of appeals judges $118,000 and supreme court justices $119,000.
Reberger’s appointment now heads for a full Senate vote. The Judiciary and Rules Committee will vote next week on the appointment of Steven A. Tuft of Burley, who was selected by the Idaho State Bar.