Guest Opinions

Messing with the state treasurer is not without precedent

Jim Jones
Jim Jones

The ongoing fight between Idaho’s legislative leadership and the state treasurer brought to mind some past court run-ins between previous treasurers and other state officials. The present conflict started in the last legislative session with an effort to move the treasurer’s office out of the Capitol to make more office space for legislators and staff. Treasurer Julie Ellsworth resisted, claiming that the Legislature had no business evicting her from the offices that have been occupied by state treasurers for over a century — essentially a squatter’s rights defense.

The Senate and House leaders filed suit against Ellsworth in June seeking a court declaration that the Legislature has the authority to say who can use the treasurer’s space. Former Attorney General David Leroy has picked up the cudgel for Ellsworth, asking the district court on Aug. 15 to dismiss the case on a number of grounds.

I won’t predict how the court may rule in this unfortunate drama, but my take is that the Legislature will eventually evict the treasurer and gobble up the space for its purposes.

When that stately building was opened up for occupancy more than 100 years ago, practically the entire government was housed there. Over time, however, the Legislature’s growing appetite for space has squeezed numerous other agencies out of the Capitol.

I was sworn in as an Idaho lawyer in 1967 in the Idaho Supreme Court, which was then housed in the Capitol. The court moved out just a few years later. Most of the other constitutional offices moved out over the ensuing years. The Legislature added two underground wings with about 50,000 square feet of space a decade ago but still desires to expand its domain. The lawmakers have the upper hand and will likely get what they want.

This is not the first time a state treasurer has been involved in legal action with other state officials.

Marjorie Moon, who served in the office from 1963 to 1986, was in court a number of times. In 1977, she won an Idaho Supreme Court ruling that prevented interest earnings on public school endowment funds from being used to pay the operating expenses of the Idaho Investment Board, which managed the funds. She wanted the interest to go to the schools, and the court agreed.

In 1986, Moon asked the Supreme Court to prohibit the Idaho State Land Board from using money from timber sales and land leases to maintain and improve state-owned lands. As Attorney General, I told the court that the timber lands would suffer if the state could not use sale proceeds to replant and improve areas that had been logged.

The court agreed, ruling against Moon. My daughter, Kathy, then 9 years old, sat through the argument and expressed concern afterward that the bears might not have a place to live if Moon won the case.

My dear friend Lydia Justice Edwards succeeded Moon as state treasurer. She had a strong dedication to following the law and became concerned when she learned that the State Insurance Fund had never filed a security deposit with her office. A statute required all workers’ compensation insurers to post a deposit, but the fund claimed it was exempt from the requirement.

Edwards asked in early 1997 that I take the matter to the Supreme Court on her behalf. After we filed our petition, the fund and governor’s office pursued legislation to exempt the fund from the deposit requirement so as to nip our suit in the bud. The legislation passed the Senate, but we were able to kill it in the House. The Supreme Court ruled in our favor, and my friend was vindicated.

So the current fracas between the treasurer and Legislature is not unprecedented. If some important governmental principle were involved in the fight, rather than just a squabble over real estate, it might seem of nobler proportions.

Jim Jones is former chief justice of the Idaho Supreme Court and Idaho Attorney General. His previous columns can be found at https://JJCommonTater.com
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