Idaho News

Amid criticism, no formal complaints filed against judge in Dietrich assault case

District Judge Randy Stoker listens to John R.K. Howard's defense attorney Brad Calbo during Howard's sentencing hearing earlier in February.
District Judge Randy Stoker listens to John R.K. Howard's defense attorney Brad Calbo during Howard's sentencing hearing earlier in February. Times-News

The Idaho Judicial Council, which reviews the behavior of judges, has not received a complaint against 5th District Judge Randy Stoker, Chief Justice Roger Burdick of the Idaho Supreme Court said Thursday.

In an unprecedented announcement, the council said it was “aware of numerous online petitions” regarding Judge Stoker’s handling of the case against John R.K. Howard for an assault on a black, mentally disabled member of the Dietrich High School football team.

“The council has not received a verified complaint against Judge Stoker,” the council said in a written statement released Thursday afternoon. “In the event that a verified complaint is received, the judicial council will investigate the complaint in accordance with judicial council rules.”

One online petition to remove Stoker has gathered more than 171,000 signatures, with organizer Monica Ryan suggesting in mid-January that she had spoken with a Judicial Council representative and confirmed an investigation would happen. Ryan, a teacher from Caldwell, told the Times-News Thursday that a miscommunication led her to wrongly believe the investigation was launched after she “faxed the petitions to the Judicial Council.” She told the newspaper that she plans to have a formal complaint notarized at a bank this weekend and will submit it soon after.

Critics are upset about the handling of the case, including that Howard, 19, was sentenced last week by Stoker to 300 hours of community service and three years of probation. They believe he should have been sentenced much more harshly for a crime, felony injury to a child, that carried a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

In order for a Judicial Council complaint to be “verified,” the person submitting the complaint must have it notarized. That ensures the complainant is serious about the matter, Burdick said. The council doesn’t act on anonymous complaints.

In 2015, 86 complaints were filed with the council. Nearly half of them, 38, were not reviewed because they were not notarized.

The seven-member judicial council was created in 1967. It consists of Burdick, two lawyers and four lay representatives. Latah County Magistrate John Judge serves as an adjunct member.

The council has the authority to issue a letter of instruction or privately or publicly reprimand a judge for misconduct. The group can also send a case to the Idaho Supreme Court with a recommendation to suspend, remove or force the retirement of a judge.

The purpose of the council, however, is not to second-guess judicial decisions.

“I can personally say that a lot of people are unhappy with a legal decision and, as a result, they turn to the council,” Burdick said. “The council cannot reverse a case because a judge made a decision within a reasonable realm of law and fact. The council has no power in that regard. That’s what the appellate courts are for.”

Only twice has a case gone to the Idaho Supreme Court, Burdick said.

In 1992, 5th District Judge Phillip Becker was suspended without pay for three months after he was arrested for drunken driving. The court found the judge’s drinking had negatively affected his work in the courtroom.

In 2009, the Supreme Court declined to take action against 2nd District Judge John Bradbury after it couldn’t decide whether Bradbury violated a residency requirement.

Bradbury had been elected to a position that required him to live in Idaho County. Previously, he had lived in Nez Perce County but bought a home in Grangeville, in Idaho County. The council received a complaint that Bradbury spent only a few days a month at his Grangeville home.

Idaho has a good track record with its judges, Burdick said.

“One of the things Idaho is truly blessed with is a judiciary that doesn’t have the problems that other states have in terms of misconduct,” he said.

In the Dietrich case, Stoker also issued a withheld judgment, meaning the conviction could be wiped off Howard’s record if he successfully completes probation.

The petitioners were also upset that white players and coaches called the disabled teen “fried chicken, watermelon and grape soda,” words often used to denigrate blacks. Stoker, during Howard’s sentencing, appeared unaware of their use as racist tropes.

Attorney General Lawrence Wasden told the Statesman on Wednesday that those names could not be attributed to Howard in the context of the incident he was charged for. Howard kicked at the victim after someone pushed the shoulder end of a plastic coat hanger into the boy’s buttocks.

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden explains the prosecution of a high-profile case March 1, 2017. A black, disabled Dietrich High School football player was assaulted by some of his teammates in a school locker room in October 2015. Authoritie

John Sowell: 208-377-6423, @IDS_Sowell