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Posts published in May 2012

“Idaho Needs Poets More Than Judges”

Byron Johnson

Originally, Byron Johnson's Poetic Justice was going to be just a private memoir, intended to consumption for family and friends. (We still have a spiral-bound copy of that version, not drastically different in content from the new one.)

A good thing for the state that he decided otherwise, and the title of this post - taken from the title of one of the poems strewn through this book - suggests why. Poetic Justice doesn't read like the brief of a former Supreme Court just, probably because Johnson was an unusual justice, and an unusual Idahoan, and much of what he has to say the state should hear.

The book was released last week, and its release event drew around 100 people including justices, politicians, activists and people of widely varied description. The variety suggests a writer who has lived several different lives, and Johnson has.

He was a Boise attorney, regarded highly enough that though in solo practice he was chosen for a seat on the Idaho Supreme Court - not a common happening. He was a political figure, a Democrat in Boise when there were few Democrats in Boise, and a Democratic candidate for the Senate (in 1972) when that was very much an upstream swim. (He wasn't elected.) He worked in some extraordinary service to Idaho history (notably in Idaho City) along the way. When he left the court (he set something of a revived precedent in serving out his term rather than resigning midway, letting voters choose his replacement), he was asked what he would do next, and initially answered: Whatever I choose to. When that didn't suffice, he said he planned to write poetry. And so he has.

You can read this memoir for some useful background in recent Idaho politics and law, and those of us absorbed in such things will relish that. But what's unique here is an uncommonly distinctive voice and personality. There's this slice, for example, spotlighting one of Johnson's quirks.

Beginning in 1972, when I ran for the senate nomination, I wore a tie only very infrequently, and not in court, except in a few instances. In the late 1970's, I argued before the Supreme Court without a tie, wearing a turtle-neck sweater under my jacket. Justice [Robert] Huntley wrote to me, saying I was jeopardizing my client's interests. My client won the case. The next time I appeared before the Court, however, I wore an old hand-tied bow tie from my college days. Huntley had the clerk, Fred Lyon, hand me a note that said, "I meant a real tie." In 1986, when I was preparing to argue before the Court in Crooks v. Maynard, representing the District Judges Association as amicus curiae, I agonized about whether to wear a tie. Finally, I did, reaching into my closet to get an expensive tie I had purchased several years before. Huntley sent a note to me after the argument, saying, "Now you look like a real lawyer." I wanted to throw up.

When I went to see Justice Huntley and tell him I would not be wearing a tie when I took the bench, he said, "I thought so." When I told Chief Justice [Allan] Shepard, he sat and pondered for a moment or two and then said, "How do you feel about the robe?" I told him I had no problem with the robe. I later learned that the members of the Court did not wear robes until the 1930's. It was considered elitist by the early justices.

Idahoans like to talk about the individuals, the real individuals, in their midst. There are fewer of them these days than there once were. But you can still pick up Poetic Justice and read the words of one of them. And you should.

241 pgs. Available through Limberlost Press, Boise.

Campaigning on the state’s dime?

There's often a fine line between legitimate mailings from office holders to constituents, and campaigning. Or maybe more of a gray area. We've received over the years glossy and costly cards and booklets from officials (more often, members of Congress, but sometimes others too), which clearly were more persuasive than informative in approach.

Incumbents often can make the case, or make a case at least, of simply keeping in touch with constituents, much of the time. But sometimes the case becomes impossible.

As recently happened with Idaho state Senator Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood. She has been representing (this last term) District 8, which has been centered around Idaho, Clearwater and Valley counties. Redistricting of the lightly-populated area of north-central Idaho has expanded the district in which she resides north all the way to Bonner County (while chopping off the Valley County portion). She is running for election to the Senate in that new district, numbered 7. She has contests in both the primary and general elections (against an independent).

She had not yet used all of the $2,000 which she could charge to the state for constituent mailings, so she decided to send a mailing. That could be described as simply a constituent mailer despite the presence of lines such as: "I want to thank those who have supported me as I seek re-election for State Senator in the next term for the new District 7. With my experience in the Senate, I hope to continue as a common-sensed, conservative business Senator, with a heart for rural and small communities, a love for life and family, and faith in our Constitutional rights derived from God."

But there's a catch, reported by the Spokesman-Review's Betsy Russell: It was sent not only to constituents in her current district, but also to quite a few in the about-to-form district she wants to (but does not yet) represent. And not only that, in a season in which she's running in a contested primary, the mailer went only to Republicans.

A little hard to make the constituent communications argument under those circumstances.

Carlson: The dangling conversation

carlson
Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles

Former Idaho Supreme Court Justice Byron Johnson has written a wonderful, colorful, interesting and entertaining personal memoir, entitled Poetic Justice, that is a welcome addition to all those interested in Idaho history.

He tells a good, though incomplete, story about his youth, his years at Harvard and Harvard Law, his practicing law in Boise for many years, and an abortive run for the U.S. Senate in 1972. He also provides some remarkably candid insights into the operation of Idaho’s State Supreme Court.

All this candor made it all the more remarkable that he skipped over the mid-50’s hysteria that gripped Boise over an alleged homosexual ring scheme later captured in the classic The Boys of Boise. Except for citing the book’s reference to his opposition views on capital punishment there is nary a mention.

There was much I could identify with and some uncanny similarities.

Shortly after joining Governor Andrus’ staff in late 1972, I would hustle down to the YMCA to play noon-time basketball. Among the regulars besides the future Justice Johnson, were Jim Bruce, the chairman and CEO of Idaho Power, and a young state representative from Caldwell who had sharp elbows and wasn’t afraid to throw them by the name of Butch Otter. A guy named Mike Gwartney from Salmon kept feeding Otter the ball---some things don’t change. A couple of other fine attorneys, Howard Humphrey and Mike Southcombe, and a young state employee the Governor ended up tapping to help with his Idaho’s Tomorrow program, Dave Alvord, from Twin Falls, rounded out the regulars.

Other similarities include a love of politics, a joy in frequent backpacking trips with family and friends, mountain climbing, much pleasure in cross-country skiing, and a burning desire to make a difference. We both also accepted scholarships to and matriculated from Ivy League schools, he at Harvard, and me at Columbia.

We both constantly ask lots of questions and are not afraid to challenge our beliefs. We both love literature, history and poetry as well as enjoy writing. We both have had fascinating perspectives and involvement in helping make Idaho history in our own respective ways. (more…)