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Judge for Yourself

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Becoming informed about judicial races is critical

    As voters get ready for the primary election this May, becoming informed about the race for a judicial seat is critical. Unlike candidates for local or legislative seats, which require that you identify a political party affiliation, judicial elections are considered non-partisan, or not affiliated with a party. The election is May 28, 2002, at the same time as the Idaho Primary election. It is a judicial nominating election. If a candidate does not obtain more than 50% of the vote, then a run-off election at the November general election is held between the two top vote recipients from the May election.
    So a great deal of onus is on the voter to determine if the judge is going to show sound judgment in reviewing the cases presented. How do you know what basis the judge will use in making a decision? How long have they practiced law and how well do they understand the law? What kind of cases did they handle as lawyers and were they prosecutors or defense lawyers? Did they routinely plea bargain and obtain diluted sentences? What is their position on the growing methamphetamine problem in North Idaho?
    In District One, which is comprised of the five northern counties, there are five district judge positions open, although only one seat resides in Sandpoint. Running for the seat of Judge James Michaud, the local race you need to pay attention to, three candidates have declared: Steven C. Verby, Sandpoint; John “Jack” Douglas, Coeur d´Alene; and Brent C. Featherston, Sagle. Running for the seat of Judge Charles W. Hosack is Charles Hosack, Coeur d´Alene and Bill Douglas of Hayden Lake. The last three judges, Judge John Luster, Judge John Mitchell, both of Coeur d’Alene and Judge Fred Gibler, Kingston, are all running uncontested. Under Idaho law one judge is based in Wallace (Gibler), one in Sandpoint, and three in Coeur d’Alene. Idaho Law also requires that a district judge must have been a lawyer for at least ten years and must also be a resident of the county of resident chambers.
    Who votes for a First District judge? All voters in the five northern counties because those counties comprise the same judicial district. In District One there are a total of 16 judges, five of which are district and eleven of which are magistrate. In a total of seven statewide districts, and a total of 37 potential judge seats on the ballot, only three races are contested.
    There are four women judges up for reelection, all in District 4, and one has a contested race. In Idaho, there are a total of 39 district judges and 83 magistrate judges. District judges have a four year term after being elected within the judicial district and are eligible for voluntary retirement at age 65. By comparison, magistrate judges have 4-year terms and participate in retention elections in November where voters decide whether they are retained in office. A magistrate is not opposed on the ballot in such an election by another person. Not all magistrates come up for election each November.
    What kind of cases does a district judge hear? District judges have jurisdiction over criminal and civil cases over $10,000. Cases involving criminal and civil charges and claims include: personal injury and other civil claims; contracts, property disputes and felonies. Judges also hear post-conviction relief actions, which are challenges to a conviction or incarceration, and appeals from decisions made by magistrate judges. Appellate jurisdiction also includes appeals from state agencies and boards, and small claims departments. Another example would be some decisions of the County Commissioners such as planning and zoning decisions.
    Does a district judge preside over cases only in the county of his resident chambers? Generally a district judge is assigned civil and criminal cases in the county of his resident chambers. However, the judge can be assigned to cases throughout the district by the administrative judge as may be needed. The Administrative Judge for District One is Judge Don Swanstrom. Currently the district judge in Wallace also presides in Benewah county and in some cases in Kootenai County. The judge in Sandpoint presides in Bonner and Boundary County. The three district judges in Coeur d’Alene share 50 percent of the Bonner County civil caseload. This formula ensures an even balancing of the caseload between the judges.
    The 2001 Annual Report filed by the Idaho Supreme Court, which can be found on the state web page (www2.state.id.us/judical), gives the following insights into the Court’s workload. In District Court throughout Idaho, there were 6,759 civil cases filed, 11,262 criminal cases and 550 special cases. That represented an increase in all three categories as compared to the year before, 14.9% in civil, 1.2% in criminal and 45.4% in special, respectively. The total number of cases, 18,571, was a 6.8% increase overall. When measured from 1994-2001, the caseload is up 26.0% in District Court. As a comparison, the judges in Magistrate Court heard 74,503 civil cases, 136,594 criminal cases, 242,295 infractions, 13,725 juvenile and 15,179 special cases. Their total caseload was 483,296, which represented a modest increase of .03% from last year, and an 18.4% increase over 7 years.
    Caseload highlights stated that felony drug case filings continued to increase in District court with 2,930 cases being filed in 2001. Civil case filings had the single largest increase last year than in the previous decade. Domestic violence petitions increased in 2001 as did misdemeanor DUI filings. I wonder if anyone else sees a pattern? How does the rise and fall of the economy reflect on our interaction with the judicial system? How does a Judge’s understanding of our culture, our economy, and our creature habits influence their decision making and judgment rendering? And most importantly, how do we draw these questions out of our prospective candidates?
    On the positive side of judicial activity in District One, the District’s first Family Court Services was established. Bonner County was also noted for conducting misdemeanor traffic arraignments and a “Focus on the Children” workshop on a monthly basis.
    We need to urge the judicial candidates Verby, Douglas and Featherson to communicate their experience, their insights, their fears and their goals, as responsively as they can. We need to ask how they will help shape a better community through judicial management and issuing sound legal decisions. We need to be attentive listeners and each practice the same sound judgment we hope to elect this May.

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Carol Curtis

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