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