The American Bar Association once conducted a study to determine who makes the best judge.
Was it a prosecutor or a defense attorney? Was it someone with an office practice? A politician?
"After they got done, they said there is nothing that is a surefire predictor of who's going to be a good judge," said 4th District Ada County Judge Mike Wetherell, who is retiring at the end of the year.
Wetherell came to the bench in 2003 without any criminal courtroom experience. He spent 10 years as an administrative aide and legal counsel for former U.S. Sen. Frank Church of Idaho. Wetherell later had a private practice and spent 17 years on the Boise City Council.
He said he learned quickly on the job, presiding over two murder trials early in his tenure.
A good judge, Wetherell said, is one who treats defendants and attorneys with respect and even-handedness.
"Fairness - the judge owes that to everybody," Wetherell said during an interview at his office on the fifth floor of the Ada County Courthouse. "Both the state and the defense in a criminal trial are entitled to a fair trial. Both sides."
SEEKING THE BENCH
Four attorneys are running in the May 20 election to succeed Wetherell: Rebecca Arnold, a commissioner with the Ada County Highway District and former attorney for Albertsons; Samuel Hoagland, a pharmacist and former college professor who specializes in business and pharmacy law and criminal defense, among other fields; Jonathan Medema, a deputy Ada County prosecuting attorney; and Jeanne Howe, an assistant Canyon County public defender.
Two other candidates, defense attorney Chuck Peterson and state Sen. Les Bock, withdrew from the race. Bock refiled to run against Fourth District Judge Richard Greenwood.
"My standard joke is that it took four people to replace me," Wetherell said, laughing.
If one of the candidates receives more than 50 percent of the vote, that person is elected. Otherwise, there will be a runoff in November between the top two primary finishers.
Eleven district judges and 23 magistrate judges hear cases in the 4th District's four counties: Ada, Boise, Elmore and Valley. Nine of the district judges are on the ballot this month; among those, Wetherell is the only one retiring. Magistrate judges will face retention elections in November.
Wetherell is sitting on the sidelines and will just wait to see who succeeds him. He isn't allowed to endorse any of the candidates, a policy he agrees with. Otherwise, he said, it would place tremendous pressure on judges to endorse other candidates and would go against the idea of judges being nonpartisan.
Not that Wetherell has always been nonpartisan. He ran unsuccessfully for Idaho attorney general in 1978 as a Democrat, a post he believes should be nonpartisan because of its position as the state's top legal officer. Wetherell also lost races for state representative in 1982 and for Idaho Supreme Court justice in 1998.
Wetherell grew up in Mountain Home. His father, Robert, served six terms in the Idaho Senate in the 1950s and early '60s. His mother, Claire, served on the Mountain Home City Council and was elected in 1982 to a term in the Idaho Senate.
As a judge, Wetherell said he is mindful that every decision he makes during the course of a trial can be appealed. Objections are made by lawyers on both sides on the fly, of course, and he said he has to decide quickly whether to sustain or overrule them.
That means an important attribute for a judge, Wetherell said, is the ability to keep your cool, behave rationally at all times and not be vindictive.
Judges usually get into trouble, he said, when they lose their tempers.
"You can have extremely intelligent people who simply don't have the temperament to be a judge," Wetherell said. "If you're going to be a judge, you'd better be prepared to have at least one side always thinking you're wrong.
"You'd better be prepared to be reversed by the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court because either you made a mistake or they did, and go on from there. Is it fun to get reversed? No, it's not fun at all to get reversed."
A good judge is much like a good basketball referee or baseball umpire, Wetherell said. If they do their job well, the spectators barely notice they're around.
"It's not up to the judge to try and somehow influence the outcome of the case. That's something a judge should never do," he said. "Let the jury make the determination based on the facts as the jury sees the facts."
John Sowell: 377-6423, Twitter: @IDS_Sowell