When a district or appellate judge retires during his or her term of office, the Idaho Judicial Council interviews candidates to fill the vacancy. The council carefully vets the candidates and sends a list of 2-4 of them to the governor for selection of a finalist.
Candidates for appointment must complete a searching application and authorize the release to the council of their tax, criminal, credit, and Bar disciplinary records. The council also solicits input from the public about the candidates. All of this information is at hand when the council interviews the candidates in public session.
Having presided over a number of these sessions, I can attest that the Judicial Council is able to determine the best candidates for an appointment. The council can rate the candidates on the list sent to the governor as “qualified” or “well qualified” or “exceptionally well qualified.” This arms the governor with sufficient information to make an informed selection
A gubernatorial appointee must run for re-election in the year when her or his term expires. Also, if a judge decides to retire at the end of his or her term, that vacancy is filled through the election process. Where more than one person runs for a position in either of those events, there is a contested election.
The Judicial Council does not vet candidates in a contested judicial election. Judicial candidates cannot run on “the issues” and, consequently, they get little media coverage. The voters, therefore, generally know little about the candidates or their relative merits.
The Idaho State Bar performs a service in contested elections by asking lawyers to rate the candidates and then making the results public. However, many lawyers do not have pertinent information about some or all of the candidates and the survey often gets little coverage. How do we make voters more knowledgeable about judicial candidates?
Persons running in a contested election for a position on the district court, Court of Appeals, or Supreme Court should go through the Judicial Council vetting process, which is public and rather thorough. Those running to fill an important judicial position should have to provide the same information to the council as persons seeking an appointment to a vacancy and they should sit through an open interview. The council should evaluate and rate the candidates and release the ratings to the voters. In order to make this process work, the filing period should be significantly lengthened and judicial positions should be voted upon in the November general election. This would take legislative changes but would result is a better-informed electorate.
A 2003 survey of Idaho’s judicial election process by Rachel Vanderpool Burdick concluded that voters had insufficient information about persons running in contested judicial elections and made a similar recommendation as a potential solution. It is time to take action to improve the election process by giving voters better information on the candidates. Then, we need to end the spectacle of having associates of judicial candidates beating the bushes to finance their campaigns. But that is an issue for another day.
Jim Jones is a former Idaho Supreme Court chief justice and a former Idaho attorney general.