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Judge in the middle

idaho RANDY
STAPILUS
 
Idaho

In the mid-70s my reporting included the courts at Canyon County, overseen at the time by three district judges. Everyone I knew who was familiar with the court system – lawyers, clerks, journalists, parties to cases and others – shorthanded the three judges in the same way.

All were professional, capable judges. But: One was the judge you wanted if you were the defendant. Another was the one you wanted if you were a victim or a prosecutor; in relative terms, he was the hangin’ judge. And then there was the one in the middle, the one the consensus figured most likely to meet most people’s idea of fairness most often. That was District Judge Edward Lodge.

Judges matter. Last week Lodge, now a federal district judge, said that next summer he plans to take senior status – a sort of semi-retirement – and time seems right for some reflection on that.

By the time I started watching him on the bench, Lodge was a veteran already, appointed in 1965 at the age of 31; he is said to still hold the record for youngest district judge in Idaho. He has had his share of high-profile cases (the Claude Dallas murder case, for one), but in his nearly half-century on the bench, he never has become especially controversial and often has drawn praise. He has been a federal district judge since 1989 – about a quarter-century.

The work of judges isn’t as easily summarized as that of, say, legislators or members of congress, and most people not associated with the courts may have little way to figure which are better and which are less so. But it is crucial work. The decisions of federal judges like Lodge, and Idaho’s current senior federal judge, Lynn Winmill, from time to time have as much impact as legislation, and can change the direction of legislation. Federal judges like Lodge, after all, have been the people making decisions on such hot buttons as Obamacare and same-sex marriage.

Lodge’s move to senior status is something a number of people in the Idaho legal system have wanted for some years, not as a criticism of Lodge but because it would open a slot for a new federal judge. The need has been great for some time; this column addressed the subject late last year. Idaho has fewer federal judges per capita than a number of other states (Wyoming, for one example, is flush with federal judges by comparison). The docket is almost overwhelming at times.

But here we will see before long a political battle royal, because federal judgeships are filled by the president, usually in some consultation with the state’s local congressional delegation, especially if it is of the same party as the president. Since Idaho’s delegation is all-Republican and the president is a Democrat, and the job will need a sign-off from the Senate as a whole, the negotiations will be difficult.

There will be some Republican temptation to hold off on the appointment until after the next presidential election. That would be a purely partisan consideration; Idaho has a job that needs filling, and the legal work of the state will be jammed until it is filled.

So there is a need to choose soon. And as the tenure of Judge Lodge has shown, there are also clear benefits to choosing well.

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