Idaho's law is designed to halt legal action that is brought to harass, annoy or subdue an adversary, regardless of its merits.
The woman challenging it, Holli Lundahl Telford, has been designated a vexatious litigant by Utah, California, Montana, Idaho's federal court, the 9th and 10th U.S. Circuit courts of appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court, according to records.
In 2011, a judge in eastern Idaho made the same call, leading Telford to contest a rule that's never been tested by the Idaho Supreme Court, one designed to help judges walk the line between protecting a person's right to the courts and preventing a logjam of frivolous filings.
"The upshot of this appeal is an attack on Idaho Court Administrative Rule 59," Telford told the Idaho justices during arguments earlier this month, with all the aplomb of someone well-versed in courtroom procedure. "There were seven issues presented in the appeal: First, failure to disqualify without cause ..."
Administrative Rule 59 was adopted in April 2011, just a few months before 6th District Judge David Nye labeled Telford a vexatious litigator. But nuisance lawsuits are not an uncommon problem for the court system, and judges have - albeit rarely - restricted the access afforded some residents since at least the early 1980s.
The rule was created to spell out the process of making that designation.
"It's not a matter of these actions being annoying or inconvenient to the court. It's the problem of really using the court's resources in such a way that it impairs the ability to move other cases along so other people can get their cases decided in a timely fashion," said Michael Henderson, legal counsel for the Idaho Supreme Court. "It's just a matter of protecting other people's access to the courts."
It's not something to take lightly, said Ritchie Eppink, senior legal counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho.
"Obviously, the right to bring our grievances before impartial courts is fundamental to our idea of government and to our idea of law and justice. Any limit on anyone's ability to access their courts is something to be taken very seriously," Eppink said. "That has to be balanced with the courts' ability to manage cases in a way that can allow speedy access to justice for everyone. If a court is going to limit a particular individual's access, there needs to be significant procedural protections to ensure that that is truly justified."
In rural areas, it doesn't take much to strain the system. Teton County had to hire an additional part-time court worker largely because the constant stream of filings from just one person overwhelmed the staff, said Phyllis Hansen, a Teton official.
"I'm thinking of one case in particular, and his appeals are just so voluminous," Hansen said. "If I'm working on a Supreme Court appeal, then the other person has to handle everything else that goes on in the office."
But a history of nuisance filings doesn't necessarily mean that a person doesn't have a valid legal case. The man who overwhelmed the Teton County staff has won one of his numerous appeals to the Idaho Supreme Court, noted Mary Lou Hansen, Teton court clerk.
In her appeal, Telford contends that Rule 59 is unconstitutional, that she wasn't given enough time to respond to the eastern Idaho judge's proposal that she be declared a vexatious litigant, and that the judge abused his discretion when he entered the order.
Telford maintains that all of the other jurisdictions that have declared her a vexatious litigant have done so wrongly. She also contends that she's been targeted because she's brought lawsuits against powerful corporations and that Idaho court staffers have removed parts of her court file to make it harder for her to win her case.
In any case, Idaho's vexatious litigation law is akin to a finding of contempt, and people facing the law should get the same due-process protections, Telford told the Idaho Supreme Court.
"So my position is that due to the nature of the proceedings ... a hearing should be required," said Telford, who is representing herself.
Idaho Deputy Attorney General Shasta Kilminster-Hadley, who argued against Telford, said Telford was given plenty of notice of the designation and clearly qualifies as a vexatious litigant under Rule 59. She said Telford missed deadlines to fight the proposed order and reminded the court of Telford's legal history.
The state's high court took the matter under advisement and said it will issue a written ruling at a later date.