Patti Tobias can barely stop smiling when she talks about her job running the engines of Idaho's judicial system.
But the longtime administrative director of Idaho state courts winces when congratulated on the national honor she just collected and the accolades heaped on her as part of that process.
"Thank you," she says, ducking slightly. "It's very embarrassing."
Not that she's ungrateful. She treasures the Warren E. Burger Award for Excellence in Court Administration, the Feb. 26 ceremony that was streamed live on Idaho Public Television and the thick, bound collection of nomination letters from across the nation.
But she seems to prefer to see it as an honor for the system and people she serves.
"This is everyone," Tobias says. "It's not just me."
The Burger Award, presented annually by the National Center for State Courts, recognizes a court administrator for expertise, leadership, integrity, creativity, innovation and judgment.
According to the judges, lawmakers and other administrators she has worked with in Idaho and through national organizations, Tobias has those qualities in ample supply.
"I can't think of anyone more highly regarded nationally in the field of court administration," New York Supreme Court Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman wrote in support of her nomination. "She represents the absolute best in our profession."
Idaho chief justices past and present praise Tobias' leadership in cutting costs, improving services, expanding public access and establishing an array of problem-solving courts to help Idaho veterans, families, juveniles, and offenders with drug, domestic violence or mental health problems.
But for many it comes down to what current Idaho Chief Justice Roger Burdick calls "the character of the person and the character of her administrative career."
"She is an innovator, a ceaseless worker, a masterful administrator in Idaho and just as competent and important nationally," Burdick says.
"Patti is a compassionate, caring and thoughtful person that is trusted by every person that has ever met her," says former Idaho House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, who worked with Tobias and others to establish the Idaho Criminal Justice Commission a decade ago.
THE PRIVILEGE OF SERVICE
In November, Tobias will mark her 20th anniversary in a job that oversees operation of the Idaho Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, and district, magistrate and problem-solving courts throughout the state.
Court administration was a new field of study and profession in the mid-1970s when it caught the attention of Tobias, who had recently graduated from the University of Illinois with a bachelor's degree in political science. She enrolled at the University of Denver Law Center, earned a master's in judicial administration and took a job as director of court services for the Missouri Supreme Court. She went on to serve as clerk of the St. Louis County Circuit Court before moving to Idaho in 1993 to take the job she still loves.
"It's my privilege," says Tobias, who turns 61 on April 2. "Administering justice. What could be better than that?"
NATIONAL AND LOCAL IMPACT
A liaison to the National Association for Court Management, Tobias has served as president of the Conference of State Court Administrators and a board member for the Council of State Governments' Justice Center.
"One of Patti's strengths is her ability to examine legislation affecting the courts, lobby Congress on behalf of that legislation and develop strategies for state courts to have a voice in our nation's Capitol," says Mary McQueen, president of the National Center for State Courts.
In Idaho, Tobias is proud of court system improvements to increase residents' voice in and understanding of the legal process through court assistance offices, interactive websites and live online streaming of Idaho Supreme Court sessions in Boise. Court assistance offices served nearly 57,000 Idahoans last year, and an assistance website launched last April received nearly 170,000 visitors by the end of the year.
She takes particular joy in the state's flourishing problem-solving courts that provide intense, tailored judicial intervention to keep many offenders out of prison. In 1997, she helped secure grant funds to establish Idaho's first drug courts, and she gained legislative approval for a statewide system in 2001. The system has expanded to include mental health, domestic violence and veterans courts, plus focused services for juvenile justice, child protection and families.
"If you've had the opportunity to attend a drug court graduation or a mental health court graduation, I think you will understand how important a problem-solving court is in, really, saving lives," Tobias says.
She offers one statistic: As of this year, 283 drug-free babies have been born to moms who've gone through Idaho's drug and mental health courts.
Tobias attends as many such graduations as she can, first learning about the individual graduates, their challenges and their successes.
"Occasionally I'm asked to be the graduation speaker," she says. "Those are the happy moments you can't get enough of."
It's not just problem-solving courts and Idaho's judicial system in general that energize Tobias' blue-gray eyes. She also lights up when the topic turns to her two children, now young adults, and long-distance running, which she took up around age 50.
In her office overlooking the Idaho Statehouse, a colorful pile of ribbons and medallions occupies a place of honor under the plaques and framed prints that denote her professional success. Each ribbon reflects a marathon or half-marathon completed. She's especially proud of the 12 full marathons she's run in the past decade.
"Eleven of those are post-cancer, so that's pretty cool," Tobias says.
A survivor of colon cancer, she sees a bright future of running and continuing to work on improving Idaho's court system.
Goals include transitioning to an electronic filing system for all court documents, greater use of video conferencing and other technological improvements that could eventually enable many Idahoans to resolve legal cases from remote locations.
"We've got lots more to accomplish," she says.
At her Burger Award ceremony, after a succession of high court judges praised her professional accomplishments and personal attributes, Tobias had the opportunity to offer some comments of her own. She focused on gratitude and praise for the collaborative effort that powers Idaho's court system, and her closing words were typical Tobias:
"Please, before I pass out from embarrassment, can we go back to work now?"
Kristin Rodine: 377-6447