Openings beckon hopefuls to the bench

krodine@idahostatesman.comJune 4, 2013 

ada county court, judge, drug, melissa, moody

Fourth District Judge Melissa Moody, who has been presiding over cases at the Ada County Courthouse since last summer, says this is her “dream job.” Switching roles after years as an attorney was not difficult, she says: “You work in the system; you understand the system. You understand the role of an advocate and you understand the role of a judge.”

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  • Here are the minimum requirements as set out in Idaho Code:

    • U.S. citizen

    • At least 30 years old

    • Has lived in the judicial district for at least one year preceding the appointment

  • Funding for the three new district judges was approved by the Legislature this winter. The appointed judges will be the first since Patrick Owen was appointed to a new 4th District post in 2007.

    The state appropriation of $504,900 will cover salary, benefits, training and travel costs for the new judges and their court reporters from Oct. 1 through the end of June 2014, which also is the end of the state fiscal year.

    Oct. 1 is the start of counties' fiscal year, and each county is responsible for providing support personnel, facilities and operating expenses for the judges chambered in their courthouses.

    The need for new judges is not new, state courts administrator Patti Tobias says, but because of tight budget conditions in recent years, the judicial council "held back the best it could" and didn't ask for the positions until this year.

    A fourth new judge - in the 1st District, based in Coeur d'Alene - is also anticipated, but not this year, Tobias says.

  • The Idaho Judicial Council emails vacancy notices to members of the Idaho Bar Association and posts vacancies on its website, inviting applications. Once the candidate pool is formed, the council invites comment from anyone who wants to weigh in on the candidates. Several months after the application deadline, the judicial council holds a public meeting to interview the applicants and select finalists to submit to the governor, who makes the appointment.

    The council tentatively plans to interview the four applicants for a new 3rd District judgeship and select nominees on Sept. 10. A meeting will be held to select nominees for a new 4th District position, also, but no date has been announced. An informational workshop will be scheduled for potential 4th District applicants.

    The seven-member council selects nominees for appointments to the Idaho Supreme Court, Court of Appeals and district courts. It is chaired by the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Other members, appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate, include a district court judge, two lawyers and three nonattorneys.

    Of the eight applications - four in each district - received this spring for new positions in the 3rd and 7th districts, one is a magistrate judge, five are attorneys in private practice and two are prosecutors. Applications aren't yet in for the 4th District.

This year marks the first time since 2007 that Idaho is adding new district judge positions, with three slots opening Oct. 1.

Two of those positions are in the Treasure Valley - a new 4th District judge to be chambered at the Ada County Courthouse, and a new 3rd District judge based at the Canyon County Courthouse. The third judge will serve the 7th Judicial District, with chambers in Jefferson County in eastern Idaho.

A call for applicants for the Boise-based judgeship is expected this week. Announcements earlier this spring for the Caldwell and Rigby jobs each drew four applicants.

That's a concern for the Idaho Judicial Council, which will interview hopefuls in August and September.

The council must submit two to four nominees for each judicial vacancy to Gov. Butch Otter, who makes the selections. The preferred, but relatively infrequent, number of nominees is four, says Patti Tobias, administrative director of Idaho's state courts.

"We're trying to encourage more applications," Tobias says. "In the fall of 2008, a district position in the 4th District got only three applicants."

Most other openings since 2008 attracted more interest - an average of seven applicants for each of 16 openings created by retiring district judges - but the need to gather a robust pool of potential jurists has long been a concern, she says. To help generate interest, she says, the state will hold a workshop for potential applicants for the new 4th District position, and such workshops will likely be held for all future openings.

Idaho's seven judicial districts have 42 district judges - 45 once the three new jurists take the bench. The state also has four appeals court judges, five Supreme Court justices and 87 - soon to be 89 - magistrates who preside over misdemeanor cases.

The 4th District's newest judge, Melissa Moody, was appointed from a field of 10 applicants last summer. She heartily recommends the career choice.

"As a judge, you have control over the procedure and the fairness and the tone in the courtroom, and it's something I've always wanted to be a part of," says Moody, who was lead deputy prosecutor in the Idaho attorney general's special prosecutions unit. "Seeing great examples of how good judges can affect judges was a real inspiration."

Moody had long aspired to become a judge and applied twice to become a magistrate before landing the district appointment. A criminal prosecutor for most of her 13 years as an attorney, she says she sought out a civil-courts assignment for part of her tenure at the Attorney General's office specifically so she could broaden her experience and enhance her chances for a district judgeship, where the caseload is generally about 60 percent civil.

Still, she knows that many attorneys would rather stay in their advocacy roles than become judges.

"I talk to folks who say, 'I would never do that in a million years,' and others who would love it," Moody says.

The Idaho Judicial Council surveyed Idaho attorneys and found obstacles to applications, including the selection process, elections and the $114,300-per-year pay.

A 2011 State Bar Association survey offers a snapshot of lawyers' after-tax income. Nearly 38 percent of 1,720 surveyed attorneys said their 2010 net income was greater than $100,000, and nearly 11 percent netted more than $200,000.

Conventional wisdom holds that private-practice attorneys earn substantially more than public prosecutors and defenders - and, by extension, state-paid judges.

Moody, who was a city and county prosecutor before becoming a judge, says the motivation is public service, not money.

Elections also could deter attorneys who require financial security, she says. Judges are on the ballot every four years, which makes a jurist's job "very vulnerable," she says.

Although many incumbent judges run unopposed, she says, "if someone throws their hat in the ring against you, then it's a contested election."

Being a judge also cuts down on interaction with friends and colleagues who are attorneys, Moody says. A judge cannot socialize with a lawyer who has a case pending in her courtroom.

"It is fairly isolating," she says. "You can't even say, 'Let's go get a cup of coffee in the cafeteria.'"

That said, Moody notes, "It's a great legal job."

Kristin Rodine: 377-6447

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