"I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors." - Thomas Jefferson (appears in the Jefferson Memorial)

Supremely intense

idaho RANDY

Idaho these days may be more likely to have a truly competitive contest for its Supreme Court than for its major partisan offices – a complete reversal from a generation ago.

It had a competitive race in 2008 won by Joel Horton, and in 2010 won by Roger Burdick. The challenger in both of those, John Bradbury, now is in a competitive 2nd district judgeship race. The 2008 Horton race, which he won by a sliver – 50.1% – was the closest Idaho Supreme Court race since at least the 1940s.

Horton is up for re-election this year, and this time the challenger is a well-known and long-time Boise attorney, Breck Seiniger. Mostly, these Supreme Court races have been calm and magisterial, even when they’ve sometimes featured energetic personalities. But this one has become a knock-down, and even drawn other candidates into the fray.

Seiniger has unleashed several blasts in the direction of the court, but this one (posted on his campaign web site) aimed directly at Horton got the most response: “Since Justice Horton has chosen to make impartiality an issue in this race, let me share with you Greg Obendorf’s story. In 2008, Idaho Supreme Court Justice Joel Horton was in another very tight race for re-election. . . . During this time, the Idaho Supreme Court deliberated on an appeal filed by J.R. Simplot, Co. to overturn a Canyon County jury’s $2,435,906 verdict in favor of a group of Idaho farmers, including Mr. Obendorf, and against Simplot.

“While the Obendorf case was under deliberation Justice Horton appointed one of Simplot’s in-house attorneys as his political treasurer. After doing so, not only did Justice Horton fully participate in the Idaho Supreme Court deliberations on this case, he wrote the opinion which resulted in all of the damages awarded by the jury were taken away, and the case being sent back for re-trial. Justice Horton’s opinion in favor of Simplot was issued on May 1, 2008 and Justice Horton was re-elected on May 20, 2008.” (He placed his supporting information online at www.seinigerforisc.com/simplot).

It’s not hard to see how that would get some attention. It led to an April 9 letter signed by Lieutenant Governor Brad Little in Horton’s defense, which said Seiniger “is mischaracterizing a Justice Horton opinion that received the unanimous agreement of the Idaho Supreme Court. This failure to objectively review the matter before the Supreme Court showed his opponent is not qualified for the position.”

In a reply letter sent to the Idaho Statesman but eventually spread afield, Seiniger responded, “The fact that the decision in question was unanimous is beside the point. The point is that a judge is to identify a conflict of interest or the appearance of a conflict and recuse himself before writing the opinion or participating in deliberations. Mr. Horton failed to do this and the public deserves to know it and draw their own conclusions. I have no intention of backing down on this, but my voice may be drowned out by heavy weights willing to condemn me for exposing the facts.”

That the Horton-Seiniger conflict has gotten so heated seems a little odd. Horton has no controversial demeanor or background: A Nampa native, he was a deputy prosecutor in Ada and Twin Falls counties, a deputy attorney general, a magistrate and a district judge before his appointment to the high court, made without controversy, in 2007. He didn’t generate a lot of headlines anywhere along the way. His campaign co-chairs this year are Denton Darrington, the former Republican senator (a long-time judiciary committee chair), and Keith Roark, the former state Democratic chair. And Seiniger didn’t seem to have targeted Horton in his run for the court; news stories from early March said he was considering filing for either of the high court seats that were up.

But when they say politics is war by other means, there may be this to consider too: Once you open a political battle, as in the case of a military one, you never know for sure where it might lead.

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