When you look at the number of Idaho women pursuing law as a profession, the numbers dwindle as the positions rise.
More than 40 percent of Idaho law students are women, but their predecessors now practicing law make up just 25 percent of the more than 4,700 active attorneys in the Idaho State Bar. And as lawyers move from associate to partner, to equity partner and to leadership committees, the demographics skew increasingly male.
Among attorneys who aspire to become judges, fewer than 12 percent in Idaho's district courts are women, says Nicole Hancock, president of Idaho Women Lawyers. Nationwide, that percentage is about 30.
"Every step of the ladder, the numbers fall off," says Hancock, a partner who heads the agribusiness group at Stoel Rives in Boise.
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Idaho's last-in-the-nation status for women judges has been of particular concern to Idaho Women Lawyers, an organization that for the past several years has monitored every interview of judicial applicants to get a handle on what those who choose judges look for and how IWL can help its members prepare to ace the oral exam.
Why does it matter?
"In general, the presence of women on the bench in that leadership role, making decisions, changes the way that judges and lawyers and litigants see women in the legal system," says Peg Dougherty, a past Idaho Women Lawyers president who coordinates coverage of the judicial interviews. "The public then sees Idaho's legal system as more representative and thus more fair."
"The bench should be representative of the people that it serves," says Dougherty, a lead deputy attorney general assigned to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.
ANECDOTAL ADVANCES, STATISTICALLY STALLED
Hancock, Dougherty and others cite examples of women gaining ground in Idaho's legal realm, including Idaho U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson. This year Paula Kluksdal became the first woman to penetrate the five-member board of partners at Hawley Troxell, and Nicole Snyder was named administrative partner for another of Downtown Boise's big firms, Holland & Hart.
Keeley Duke is president of the Idaho Chapter of the Federal Bar Association, and this summer Trudy Fouser joined the five-member Idaho State Bar Commission.
"I am the sixth woman on the commission in the history of the Idaho Bar (about 90 years)," Fouser says. "Isn't that ridiculous?"
The Boise civil litigation firm Fouser, co-founded 12 years ago, also arises during women-in-the-law conversations because all but one of Gjording Fouser's six lawyers is female. The sole male is Fouser's husband, Jack Gjording.
The couple didn't set out to hire all women, she says, but "that's how it worked out, and it's worked out well."
A practicing attorney for three decades, Fouser says she's surprised the gender gap in Idaho's legal power structure has remained so lopsided.
"I was at the (1983) investiture of Idaho's first female state judge, Deborah Bail, and I thought we were on our way," she says. "But then we stalled somehow."
Anecdotes denote progress, says Hancock, but statistics tell a different story. "There was a big push in the '80s and '90s, but not so much now."
A LONG RUN OF MALE APPOINTEES
Two women, Linda Copple Trout and Cathy Silak, joined the Idaho Supreme Court in the early 1990s, but the state's highest court has been all-male since Copple Trout retired in January 2009.
Karen Lansing has served on the four-member Idaho Court of Appeals since 1993.
At the district court level, where state judges oversee all felony cases plus civil lawsuits, three women were among the 12 jurists appointed by Idaho's governor between 2000 and 2002.
But after April 2002, when Juneal Kerrick took the Third District bench in Caldwell, 27 judicial appointees in a row - including one Court of Appeals judge and three Idaho Supreme Court justices - were men, according to Idaho Judicial Council records. Several other new judges - including one woman, Renae Hoff in the Third District - were elected during that period, not appointed.
Gov. Butch Otter, who made about two-thirds of those appointments, broke the all-male run in 2009 by naming Susan Wiebe to the Third District bench. In 2010, Idaho Women Lawyers invited Otter to a luncheon to express the need for more female judges.
"It was a very, very fruitful meeting for us," Dougherty says. "He was very receptive to our message."
Otter's next three district court appointees were female - Lynn Norton and Melissa Moody in the Fourth District and Molly Huskey in the Third.
TOO FEW WOMEN APPLY
It should be noted that of the 27 consecutive male appointees, 16 took positions that drew zero female applicants.
And no women applied for southern Idaho's two new district judgeships, expected to be filled this fall in the Third and Fourth districts. Seven men applied for the Caldwell-based post, and 14 applied for the Boise-based position. Three of those men applied for both openings.
"We're out there beating the pavement trying to figure out why," Dougherty says. "I don't really have an answer for that now."
But current openings for Ada County magistrates - judges who preside over misdemeanor cases and are appointed by county panels - drew a healthy share of women, she notes. Ten of the 26 applicants were women, as were five of the nine finalists who were interviewed Aug. 21 and 22.
"We're very happy about that ratio," Dougherty says. "We will be holding that up as the goal. It ought to be about 50 percent."
Hancock speculates that female lawyers may be more likely to go for a magistrate position before aiming for the district court because "women by nature feel like we need to be extremely qualified for a position before we apply."
DON'T BLAME THE MEN
Hancock stresses that many male members of the Idaho Bar are supportive of women, and she attributes the relative scarcity of female promotions to "unconscious bias" exacerbated by women's own attitudes and confidence level.
"You can't just look and say, 'the men aren't appointing women,'" Fouser agrees. "We can't just point our finger at any one group and place blame."
She says Idaho Women Lawyers' goal-oriented, problem-solving approach will be helpful in finding answers and increasing women's progress in the profession.
The IWL's Women in the Law gala, which debuted this past spring, marks a step forward, Dougherty says. Hancock noted that a growing array of forums - including the Andrus Center's Sept. 4-6 "Transforming America: Women and Leadership in the 21st Century" - will reinforce the idea of female success for the coming generation of young lawyers.
"Awareness is critical," says Hancock. "It's important to get across the idea that this is a safe environment in which to aspire to be a leader.
"When you build the culture, it sets the stage."
Kristin Rodine: 377-6447