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Reflections on the local ballot

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In this time of hyper-hot politics, are the lower-rung non-partisan levels of the Idaho ballot in the upcoming Idaho city elections much exception?

Not to press points too far, there are a few indicators of reflections from the national roar. Even if you wouldn’t want to make the case too hard.

For example. Coeur d’Alene has a long tradition, going back generations, of heated city elections. Only recently that tradition ascended new peaks, as a ferociously-contested set of recall elections, sandwiched in between hot regular elections, racked the city.

But not this year. For the first time in many, many elections (decades back at least), every post on the ballot in Coeur d’Alene, including that of the mayor (Steve Widmyer, who’s seeking a second term), is unopposed, with only the incumbents running for each. (There is still the possibility of a write-in or two surfacing.)

That’s a striking turnaround from recent elections, with activist conservatives pushing hard in election after election. The lack of filings this time may have to do with the more moderate candidates winning consistently in the last few city elections, a contrast to elections taking in other boundary lines in the Panhandle. Or it could be campaign fatigue. But it could be a soft echo of national politics. One suggestive point is that Coeur d’Alene is not alone in lacking city election contests. Most other cities in Kootenai County reported the same, and fewer than usual candidates turned up in many other cities around the region.

In southern Idaho candidate filings, a different dynamic emerged.

In Boise (where the mayor is in mid-term and not on the ballot this year), the three council contests drew at least four candidates each. From that list jumped out three prominent Democrats: one council incumbent, TJ Thomson, and for the other seats Frank Walker, a former Ada County commissioner, and Holli Woodings, a former legislator and candidate for secretary of state. Those three may be the most locally prominent of the 13 council candidates, and well-positioned for their races. Together with Mayor David Bieter, who occupies a non-partisan office but personally is a Democrat, the city may become a Democratic redoubt in the next election.

By contrast, Meridian drew seven candidates for its three council seats, Nampa nine for its three, and Caldwell 10 for the four council seats up there. All three of those cities have mayors up for election, which often results in a larger collection of candidates to the field.

Not everywhere are we seeing these kinds of effects.

In many cities, the candidate filing patterns are running true to form. Idaho Falls and Pocatello, where mayors are up, have normal rosters of candidates, and all three council seats in Twin Falls have races pitting incumbents against challengers. Both Pocatello and Idaho Falls mayoral races may be competitive - legislator Jeff Thompson is seeking the job in Idaho Falls - so they may say something about those cities’ directions.

City elections do help set directions for a city, sometimes taking it where it might not otherwise go. Sometimes you can hear the distant rumblings of larger-picture politics in that. Sometimes, it generates a change or a confirmation of its course internally, on its own.

In another six weeks or so, Idaho cities’ voters will get to weigh in on all that.

High cost of jail housing

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Back when I was covering police and courts for Nampa-Caldwell newspapers, we liked to call it - in honor of a former county sheriff - the Dale Haile Jail. Technically, it was the Dale Haile Detention Center, which it still is.

What it also was then, and still is, is too small.

At least, for the demands being placed on it.

On Thursday, according to the online jail roster, it held 431 inmates, just short of the 477 beds it has. (Weekends tend to be busier.) The situation actually is more complicated because, as one staffer told a reporter, “I can’t put a female in with a male. I can’t put a sex offender in with a murderer. You’ve got to be able to separate all these people out.” And there are people who might have been put in jail if there was as place to put them.

And there’s a lot of traffic in and out. The site noted that, “In 2011, Courts and Transport Deputies drove 65,000 miles in transport vehicles, screened over 400,000 individuals entering the two Canyon County courthouses and escorted nearly 11,000 inmates to court appearances from the detention center.”

Overall, one review after another for many years has maintained that more jail space and overall capability is needed. The Canyon County commissioners recently ordered another review from the DLR Group, a large national building design firm, and it found that Canyon needs a jail able to handle at least 1,000 inmates - double the capacity it currently has.

And that’s just to get the county through the next decade.

The pressure is considerable, because building this thing would cost a lot of money (the county hasn’t released an exact number, but it will be big). The county’s voters have, three times in a row, turned down bond proposals for jail construction.

This is worth pondering even if you don’t live in Canyon County because the jail problems it faces are not so radically different from those faced by many other counties.

Ada County, for example, has space for about 1,200 inmates. Since its population is a little more than double Canyon’s (which has capacity for 477), that sounds about right … except that Canyon is really needing capacity for more than 1,000. Which means Ada County probably should be looking at capacity for 2,500 or so.

Yes, this is expensive.

And there are only so many alternatives.

One might be cheap housing, down to and including tents - a popular idea in some quarters. But aside from temporary and limited use, it won’t work in solving the larger-scale issues of security and safety.

You could simply decide to quit jailing people when the beds are full. That may mean jailing low-risk minor offenders and letting the violent and dangerous go free.

Or, you could suck it up and raise taxes to pay for new jail buildings and staff. It would solve the problem of what to do with the inmates, though it wouldn’t make taxpayers happy (as in Canyon at least it hasn’t).

Or, we might try reconsidering what we choose to jail people for, and maybe try to find other ways of dealing with some of the offenders.

Just a thought.

Even in Idaho, religion’s changing

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The meshing of religion and politics is as clear today as it ever has been: To a remarkable degree, poll after poll has found, you can tell how someone votes if you know where (or if) they go to worship.

And this picture is changing fast, maybe faster nationally than it ever has. Idaho is changing, too, and in some ways not at all obvious.

The latest source material for this is a massive report, released last week (at www.prri.org/research/american-religious-landscape-christian-religiously-unaffiliated/), by the Public Religion Research Institute, a “nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to conducting independent research at the intersection of religion, culture, and public policy.” It draws on a survey of more than 100,000 Americans, a huge sample, with detailed results at the state level.

One of its major takeaways is this: “White Christians, once the dominant religious group in the U.S., now account for fewer than half of all adults living in the country. Today, fewer than half of all states are majority white Christian. As recently as 2007, 39 states had majority white Christian populations.”

Idaho, as you may expect, is still one of those majority white Christian states. But the margin is shrinking. When it did a similar survey in 2007, PRRI found that Idaho was 67 percent white Christian (Latino and black Christians were categorized separately). Today, that figure stands at 56 percent.

The trend line is comparable all over. Utah dropped from 68 percent to 61 percent. Less-churched Oregon went from 57 percent to 43 percent. Washington state fell from 55 percent to 42 percent.

Further, an age gap is widening (part of the reason for the change). Many Christian groups are seeing much smaller percentages of affiliation within younger age groups. The report noted, “Only slightly more than one in ten white evangelical Protestants (11%), white Catholics (11%), and white mainline Protestants (14%) are under the age of 30. Approximately six in ten white evangelical Protestants (62%), white Catholics (62%), and white mainline Protestants (59%) are at least 50 years old.” Among evangelicals, this marks a downturn after a generation of steady, sometimes explosive, growth.

The report did also note “the Mormon exception”: “Although Mormons are a predominantly white Christian religious tradition, there is little evidence to suggest that they are experiencing similar declines. Currently, 1.9% of the public identifies as Mormon, a number identical to findings from a 2011 study of Mormons in the U.S. Mormons are also much younger than other white Christian religious traditions.”

That’s significant in Idaho, where Mormons are the largest religious group (at 20 percent of the population) in the state, ahead of evangelical Protestants, who make up 15 percent.

What may surprise a lot of people, though, is that the largest religious-based segment of the population in Idaho, larger than either of those two, is the unaffiliated, at 27 percent. Idaho’s rate is actually higher than the national percentage, which is 24 percent - three times what it was a quarter-century ago. Idaho is one of the 20 states where unaffiliateds are the biggest part of the population. That contrasts with 12 states where evangelicals are the largest group, or 11 where Catholics are, or the one (Utah) where Mormons hold the largest share. Idaho’s share of unaffiliates ranks just ahead of Wyoming and Nebraska - which would be understandable company - but also immediately behind California and Nevada.

These statistics mark some big changes. The effects aren’t likely to manifest immediately, or in the next two or three years. But religion eventually does have a big impact on politics, the economy and much else. Watch for it.

Uprisings, except for Idaho

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Across the country, so many Democrats are getting into runs for Congress that some party leaders are worried about getting swamped with competitive primary contests.

In one suburban Chicago district, nine Democrats have filed to run against a Republican U.S. House incumbent. As of the end of June, the number of Democratic House challengers nationally who had raised at least $5,000 by then - indicating at least some level of seriousness in campaigning - was 209. That’s an abnormally large number. In this century, the previous comparable record for a challenging party was held by the Republicans in 2009, just ahead of their 2010 sweep - and in that year, Republicans had 78 comparable candidates.

We’re more than a year away from the November 2018 election, and many conditions can change between here and there. But at the moment, Democrats nationally are looking very much the way they did in 2006, the way Republicans did in 2010 and 2014.

Just west of the Idaho state line, the massive Oregon second House district, where veteran Republican Representative Greg Walden has usually won with numbers like those of his Idaho counterparts, has drawn four Democratic challengers so far, at least a couple of whom look to be serious contenders. In Washington’s fifth district (centered on Spokane), where the seat is held by Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a string of Democratic candidates has emerged, topped this week by veteran former state Senator Majority Leader Lisa Brown.

In Idaho … not so much.

There’s one structural element to this. Idaho won’t have a Senate election next year - Jim Risch is up in 2020 (and says he’s running again) and Mike Crapo in 2022. That diminishes, a little, interest in Idaho congressional races. But both U.S. House seats will have an election, and one of them will be open, meaning no incumbent will be on the ballot.

Republicans are in the field. Incumbent Mike Simpson in the second district (with maybe another primary challenge, though there’s not yet an FEC trace of one). In the first, where the seat is open owing to incumbent Raul Labrador’s run for governor, at least three prospects are at work.

So far, as best I could determine, there’s no significant activity toward a Democratic candidacy in the second district. A candidate from that party eventually may file and be on the ballot next year, but for now you have to suspect he or she will be a placeholder, there mainly to preserve options in the unlikely event Simpson lost a Republican primary.

The Federal Election Commission does have a filing in the first district for Democrat Michael William Smith of Post Falls, but no financial activity is reported. Smith has a Facebook web page, but not much is reported there by way of campaign activity.

Democrats may wind up with more than a placeholder in the first. A leader in the Indivisible group (which is untested but looks to be highly energetic and active in some places) in Ada County is said to be interested. And a few other names have been batted around, including a couple from Idaho’s panhandle, which hasn’t produced a member of Congress in a very long time.

Former state Senator Dan Schmidt of Moscow has been mentioned (by fellow columnist Chris Carlson, among others) as a prospect for governor; the first district spot might be a more logical fit.

But candidates are not bursting through the woodwork (one Democrat suggested to me that there is no woodwork). And as early in the cycle is this still is - unusually early for most candidates to jump in, by normal schedules in the past - that right now makes Idaho an outlier in the national political picture.

Trade, growth and ‘tough talk’

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It was a striking headline in the business news site Bloomberg on August 18 that should have garnered more attention than it did in the Gem State:

“Trump-Friendly Idaho Doesn't Put America First.”

That does need some explanation. It doesn’t refer to patriotism as such, but rather Idaho’s business practices: Idaho’s economy is doing well, ranking high among strong state economies, because “its largest employers sell the bulk of their products overseas, count the world's biggest multinational companies among their customers and suppliers, and make most of their money from the technology driving globalization.”

That was Bloomberg’s core conclusion, supported by a raft of data. I found this nugget an interesting contrast: “... the economy of Idaho's southeastern neighbor, Wyoming, is driven more by domestic industries like metals and mining, which provided 20 percent of its gross domestic product. It was the worst U.S. economy during the 12 months ended March 31, with the largest job and tax-revenue losses and second-worst stock market and mortgage delinquencies.”

Idaho’s international focus should come as no surprise. Governor for the last decade, C.L. “Butch” Otter, has made his international business trips, many to Asia and Europe, highlights of his years in office, understandably since international business relationships have been a big part of what he did professionally back to his days at the J.R. Simplot Company.

Over the last 15 years or so, international exports from Idaho have more than doubled - a remarkable expansion many Idahoans may not even have noticed - according to the Idaho Department of Commerce. Many of Idaho’s larger businesses are involved in export.

None of this is really stunning news; even decades ago, international business was important to Idaho business. Nor is it an outlier nationally; a new poll from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs said that “for the first time since the think tank first asked the question in 2004, more than half of Americans — 57 percent — also agreed that trade is good for creating U.S. jobs.” But about half of Republicans nationally say that trade deals mostly benefit other countries, not ours. The issue becomes of bigger import these days because of attitudes toward trade in the Trump Administration, which voters in Idaho helped put into office.

Consider these headlines over the last month from a range of publications internationally: “Trump is 'hostile to trade', says American advising UK”; “Trump may be about to wallop global trade as we know it”; “Trump's Stalled Trade Agenda Leaves Industries in the Lurch”; “Trump's Trade Agenda Divides the Nation's Cities”; “China: Trump trade probe violates international rules”; “NDP trade critic calls Trump's comments about terminating NAFTA 'disconcerting'.” Among many more.

The details of trade agreements are where you find the good-or-bad; specific provisions can be beneficial or not. The talk coming out of the White House, though, has emphasized how “we are going to make some very big changes” (as the president said of the NAFTA this spring).

That’s making a lot of businesses nervous. And regardless who got the votes for the presidency last year, it ought to make Idaho economic developers nervous as well.

Racial magnets

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Some years back we toured the Statehouse at Mississippi and got a courteous tour of the place from one of its legislators. He asked where we were from and, told Idaho, replied that he knew little about the state other than references to its famous potatoes and famous neo-Nazis.

A week ago, Charlottesville, Virginia took the spotlight on the neo-Nazi front, but Idaho is not out of the racial extremist picture. The 24/7 WallSt. website compiled data on hate groups from the Southern Poverty Law Center - which for decades has been tracking such organizations - and found Idaho has the second largest number of such groups in the nation, per resident. (Montana was first, but it has a smaller population; Mississippi was in third place.)

Back when the Mississippi legislator offered his perspective, I felt obliged to clarify something. The neo-Nazis he (and so many other Americans) had heard of did exist, and then still had their compound in Kootenai County. But never were there more than a few hundred there, and usually no more than a few dozen. They were never popular in the state. On the few occasions when someone associated with them ran for public office, they always lost by overwhelming margins.

It would be more comforting to stop there and suggest that there may be a few bad eggs in every basket, but it’s only a very, very few.

Still. Reputations can feed on themselves; prophecies can self-fulfill.

Idaho, especially (not exclusively) northern Idaho, became known as a place where white supremacists or separatists or nationalists might feel comfortable.

That isn’t entirely about attitudes. Idaho is relatively remote from big population centers. As a matter of demographics, it is more homogenous than most of the country: Low percentages of minorities, ethnic, religious and otherwise.

It evolved in a certain cultural mythology as part of a region where people uncomfortable with multi-cultural environments could go to withdraw from the rest of the country.

According to 24/7 WallSt., we get to this: “There are 7.1 hate groups for every 1 million people in Idaho, nearly the greatest concentration of any state considered. One of the least diverse states in the country, some 91.5% of the state’s population identifies as white, nearly the largest share of any U.S. state. Despite the state’s relative racial homogeneity, or perhaps because of it, one of the dozen hate groups operating in Idaho is a KKK chapter based in Hayden.”

Listen to state Representative Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, in a statement (from radio host Dave Hodges) she reposted about Charlottesville: “The way the media has set this up, the mention of white nationalist, which is no more than a Caucasian who (sic) for the Constitution and making America great again, and confusing it with term, ‘white supremacist’ which is extreme racism. Therefore, if one is ‘guilty’ of being white, one is clearly racist. And if one is white AND loves America, they are a white supremacist capable of carrying out violent acts against nonwhites.”

The terminology may be slippery, but the attitudes, and stances, are not. The message gets out. Idaho’s top elected leaders, including many of those in current posts, have for many years denounced racism in the state. Idaho has its Anne Frank memorial and plenty of leaders who fight racism in the state.

But the lower-level, sometimes underground, message often is more welcoming - to white race-based groups, and often not so much to everyone else.

Eclipse the revelator

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A line of argument in politics in recent years, as in the great Lyndon Johnson books by Robert Caro, has held that the old saying is a little off: Power doesn’t so much corrupt, as it reveals. Power can make the doing of things easier and with less consequence, so we can see more clearly what lies underneath.

It turns out that a solar eclipse can do the same thing.

Friends of ours, who live in the upcoming eclipse totality zone, are hosting a couple of out of state eclipse-interested friends. (Our house, six miles away, is merely in 99.8 percent totality.) They’re not charging their friends any rent or room fee. As matters sit today, I call that a passed character test.

The eclipse, to be sure, is an understandable business opportunity, and there’s no harm and nothing immoral in taking some advantage of it. But at some point, somewhere along the line, it turns into greed, and totality areas all over the country have seen some ugly behavior and sad exposures of character.

There was, for example, the news story about a woman formerly from Idaho, now living near Washington, D.C., who booked an Idaho Falls hotel room back in October 2013. They had an agreement (for a fairly high room rate based on normal Idaho Falls levels). Some months ago the hotel said it wanted to raise the rate by $60; the couple reluctantly agreed. Then, earlier this month: "[The manager] started questioning us and telling us that our rate was way too low for this event and he wanted to raise our rates. My husband said, well you have already raised our rates once and we have a contract with you.”

That hotel in the news story now reportedly has rooms listed at $700 during the eclipse period. If you’re familiar with Idaho Falls lodging, you know this is not just a slight price increase. It is not even an outlier increase, or among the highest. Quite a few establishments regionally have been shooting far over $1,000 a night for rooms that ordinarily would rent for a tenth as much. (The Idaho attorney general’s office has fielded a number of complaints about room rentals.)

Okay: Room rates are, as a normal and reasonable matter, marketplace-flexible. They vary with seasons and holidays and location popularity, and they can sometimes be negotiated by late arrivals (at places with plenty of empty rooms that same night) or by third-party deals. There’s nothing holy about a particular rate.

But when rates rise abruptly, even during times of high popularity, by factors of seven or ten or more, you have to think something in the system, and in people’s willingness to simply take advantage of others and throw conventional rule books out the window, is wrong. There are human consequences. Good luck if you need to travel then for business, or visit a relative. Good luck if you’re not wealthy.

I don’t mean here to focus over-heavily on the lodging industry; lots of private homeowners are renting out their houses for a couple of days for almost unbelievable amounts. And I don’t mean to focus either just on rental rooms; the urge to suck up stray bucks seems to have become notably intense with this particular phase of the moon. (Airbnb reports an explosion of both requests for homes, and homes on offer.)

Consider what this kind of grasping reveals not only about our willingness to take advantage of others.

There are people in the totality zone who should, in bright light, take a good look in the mirror.

Geopolitics, Kootenai Style

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John T. Wood, in his later years, might have fit right into today’s Kootenai County Republican Party.

Almost.

He was a respected professional man, a physician who among other things was the founder of Coeur d’Alene’s first hospital, and served as mayor. But by 1950, when he was 72 and elected to the U.S. House, his interests ran in other directions - turning to dark conspiratorial theories. He was convinced the United States was about to become a “foul fascist state” about to be split into seven administrative units governed by dictatorial boards.

But much of his effort in Congress concerned the United Nations which, he believed, was tring to take over the world. The U.N. Charter “was designed as an instrument of force,” he said, modeled on Soviet governing documents, and the organization itself (as one book summarized his statements in the Congressional Record) “was ground zero of a broader ‘conspiracy’ to use its own ‘self-granted powers’ to form a ‘one-world government, dominant over the Constitution, and over the laws of every state in the Union’.” And so on. He served in the House but one term, losing in 1952 to Democrat Gracie Pfost.

If I sound dismissive it’s because Wood’s dystopian theories have not, let’s say, proven out. But I don’t dismiss him entirely, because a succession of sorts to his world view is alive and well in Kootenai County.

Last month the Kootenai County Republican Party blasted Idaho’s two senators, Mike Crapo and Jim Risch - Republicans both - for their support of sanctions against Russia.

Crapo, in fact, was one of the Senate leaders supporting the measure. He said of it, “This legislation signals to the world the United States’ unflagging commitment to the sanctity of territorial integrity, human rights, and good governance. It also demonstrates our resolve in responding to cyber-attacks against American citizens and entities and against our allies. The Crapo-Brown-Corker-Cardin bill will result in some very powerful, new sanctions against Russia.” Nearly every member of Congress, in both parties in both chambers, voted in favor.

Didn’t convince up in the Panhandle. The party in Kootenai passed its own measure warning of “the emergence of a globalist ‘Davos Culture’ [that being this decade’s preferred name for the international conspiracy] comprised of progressive political elites around the world that is distinct from Traditional Western Civilization.” Kootenai contended that “Russia has become a nationalistic country that is resisting this progressive globalist agenda.” And: “globalists have recently been agitating against good relations with Russia because they see it as one of the last holdouts against a progressive globalist agenda.”

In tone, it sounds a lot like something John T. Wood might have gotten behind.

Except that Wood did get that Russia - or, then, the Soviet Union - was a hostile power, run as a militaristic dictatorship, was a suppressor of speech, press and religion, active in expanding its hegemony at the expense of the United States and its influence, and … well, on and on. In many ways, it is like that today.

Wood did at least get, more or less, who our friends are in the world, and who aren’t.

It’s a strange thing to say, but John T. Wood from the early 1950s, thrown out of Congress back then by Idaho voters who largely seemed to consider him too extreme, might be a little too mainstream for today’s Kootenai County.

Where to find the rules

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People who want to use the power of government as a hammer - in action or in political talk - often talk about all those regulations, which both federal and state agencies have, intrusive or not, in abundance.

But they remain mysterious for many people, so it seems reasonable to take a moment to look at what they are, how they happen, and where to find them.

Federal first.

There is a compilation called the Code of Federal Regulations, but it’s cumbersome to go through. The place to go to find out what’s happening in the federal rules is the Federal Register, a daily (on weekdays) publication that includes all sorts of notices, rules and regulations prominent among them. The whole thing is almost a daily diary of what the federal government does, and it’s more than most people could read. I have an e-mail subscription to the daily table of contents (free at https://public.govdelivery.com/accounts/USGPOOFR/subscriber/new) and use it to scan through what the agencies are up to. Links to the full text of all of it is included.

A lot of it is unexciting maintenance stuff, and meeting notices, funding awards, findings of fact and other material is mixed in. But if a rule is being created or amended or repealed, it has to - by law - show up in the Federal Register. Anyone interested in tracking what the federal agencies actually do could do worse than to start there - and it is searchable.

The states all set up rules and regulations that accompany the state laws; laws are passed by the legislature to set the outlines and general policies, and the rules and regulations are developed through the agencies, often to fill in the gaps left by the laws, often with participation - or at the request - of various interests involved with them. Business and environmental groups, for two examples, often pay close attention when rules are being crafted, and often get their message into the mix.

The states report on their regulations in different ways. Until a couple of decades ago, Idaho had no comprehensive catalogue, or publication of changes, to its rules. Now it does, via the state Department of Administration, in the office of the rules coordinator (that’s a state job). You can find it online at adminrules.idaho.gov.

That office puts out a monthly publication called the Idaho Administrative Bulletin, which includes all the changes either being made or under review. It expands and contracts in size through the year like an accordion, because the Idaho Legislature reviews all the rule changes each session, and during the legislative season rulemaking activity comes to a near halt. Other months, there’s a good deal more, especially not long after and not long before the session. In the July edition (it publishes the first Wednesday of each month), the Bulletin runs 117 pages, reflecting a mid-cycle stretch. In certain months it can become much larger; the edition from last October ran 863 pages.

That’s a lot of Idaho rule-making, but not especially unusual. The legislature’s job, when it passes laws, isn’t to try to work out every detail of how a law is supposed to work; but by the time state employees have to make it work, they have to know what to do and how to do it, in a practical and consistent way. Hence the rules.

The regulations are in other words where you really get down into the weeds, into the details of how things work. It’s not the most exciting place to prowl around, as a general rule. But if you want some real insight into how governments, federal or state (or local too, for that matter) work, this is where you can most readily get some solid insight.

Compromise on the upswing?

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Our justice system is going through a quiet revolution, away from what you often see on TV.

There you see disputes - from murder cases to divorces to civil money-claims lawsuits - hashed out in trials, in open court. You can’t blame the drama writers: It’s the entertaining way.

But if you go to watch the action at your local courthouse, you won’t see much of it, at least not out in the open. Compared to a generation ago, far more cases are settled away from trials, away from the courts, as a part of a deal-making process.

This comes to mind as I think about a new book (which - disclosure here - I helped publish), called Mediation Mechanisms, by Duff McKee, a retired fourth district judge who has mediated a couple of thousand or so cases. (The book is available at ridenbaughpress.com, at Amazon.com and elsewhere.) His book is about how mediation works, on a practical level.

He also writes, “When I began practicing law in the mid-1960s, it was a concession of weakness to be the first one to bring up the subject of settlement. This meant that the other lawyer had to raise the subject first if the case was to get settled. This led to bizarre communications between lawyers dying to discuss settlement without either one appearing to be the first one to utter the question, ‘Can’t we settle this?’”

Now things have changed, most especially the ballooning cost of litigation and crowded court calendars which led to more judges imploring lawyers to settle the dispute out of court, and to clients who can’t afford the public show. The costs, especially for such things as discovery, document research, expert assistance and more, can put the cost of civil action out of reach for most people.

These days, McKee said, “the settlement process is now primary in the minds of most litigators and most judges. Trial calendars with multiple settings are a fact of life, with cases stacked four to six deep, in the full expectation that five out of six scheduled cases will settle before trial.”

A few weeks ago I talked this over with a couple of long-established Boise lawyers, and they strongly agreed. One said that two or three decades ago lawyers at his firm would spend much of their time at or preparing for trial; so far this year, by contrast, only about one in ten attorneys there have undertaken even a single trial.

Another attorney I’ve known for several decades shifted several years ago from work in litigation and trials to almost exclusively working in mediation and arbitration.

As McKee said, “the civil case mediation has come of age in our system.”

That has its good points and some not so good. On the good side, settlements can lead to more compromises and to resolutions that can be fairer all around; many legal cases really aren’t all black and white, and many cry out for some answer that encourages each side to give a little. Many people may come out of the system less damaged.

The downside is that not all cases are like that, and our legal system should have a practical way to come to grips with right and wrong. Sometimes someone really should be put in the position of having to pay, and someone ought to be clearly vindicated.

Ironically, or maybe not, as we’ve moved into ever-sharper “win-lose” divisions in our politics and policy, we seem to be moving into a legal system edging toward thoughtful discussion and compromise.