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The third judge

idaho RANDY

There’s not much ideological content to this, so Representative Mike Simpson may not get a lot of attention for his proposal of last week, which my be the most specifically useful to Idaho any of the delegation offers this term. And a repeat from 2010, at that.

But Idaho does need a third federal district judge. An act of Congress literally is required to create a new slot, as Simpson has again proposed. He said that “I recently met with Idaho’s federal judges and heard directly from them about the serious impact budget cuts, sequester, and the lack of an additional judge are having on the federal courts in Idaho. While I am fully cognizant of the budget crisis facing our country, I share the judges’ concerns about delays in the administration of justice and the impact that has on the Constitutional role of the courts.”

He has specifics: “As Idaho’s population has grown, so has the number of court cases.  Between 2007 and 2013 the District of Idaho has experienced a 26% increase in total filings and pending caseloads have increased 30%.  Idaho has a heavier caseload than other rural states that already have three federal district judges (Alaska, Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming).”

If anything, Simpson understates. Idaho’s current senior federal judge, Lynn Winmill, has been pitching the case for a third judge for years. The situation in Idaho – which is one of the most understaffed states – has been reviewed repeatedly in recent years, and independent review panels such as the Judicial Council of the Ninth Circuit (earlier this year) have specifically endorsed an additional judge for Idaho.

The understaffing has led to inefficiencies and, ironically, extra costs. Winmill said in one letter on the proposal that “the District of Idaho has made great use of visiting judges to assist with the District Judge caseload. In reviewing the visiting judge statistics for calendar year 2011, we estimate that our visiting judge in-court time will increase by 57% (from 169 hours to 266 hours) in calendar year 2012, which doesn’t include their own preparation hours.”

In another letter last year: “In order to address our current caseload, we have done everything in our power to (1) conserve resources; (2) ensure fiscal accountability; (3) institute proactive techniques in our case management with regard to the ADR and visiting judge programs; and (4) retain and provide detailed statistical data, which is consistently monitored and analyzed. Unfortunately we cannot continue to rely upon our ADR and visiting judge programs as a substitute for a third permanent Article III judgeship.”

As to why no stronger push has happened for a third judge – over many years – there is a political note.

Many political Idahoans may pause when they consider that if a new Idaho judicial seat is opened, President Barack Obama will be filling it. (That would be the more likely since last week’s Senate action ending filibusters against most judicial appointments.) But as a practical matter, presidents rarely jam through judicial appointments over the serious objections of a state’s congressional delegation, even of the opposing party. Winmill, a Democrat, had support from Republicans in the delegation. And you never know for sure what a judicial appointee will do: the fact that they’re appointed by a Democrat or a Republican isn’t always a good predictor of how they rule. (I know you’re thinking of the Supreme Court. But most judicial appointees are less predictable.)

Simpson will not easily be able to advance his bill far. But he’s at work here on an Idaho-specific need, and a need of long standing.

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