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Idaho View: It’s time to fix Idaho’s flawed judicial elections

This appeared in the Lewiston Tribune:

A year ago, then-state Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, came as close to claiming a seat on Idaho’s Supreme Court as possible — without actually getting one.

It did not seem to matter that McKenzie was not particularly qualified to sit on Idaho’s highest court.

Or that his opponents for the seat being vacated by then-Chief Justice Jim Jones had far more credentials. Among them were Idaho Court of Appeals Judge Sergio Gutierrez, who had 15 years on the appellate court and another six as a District Court judge; Clive Strong, who for three decades served as the head of the attorney general’s Natural Resources Division; and Rupert attorney Robyn Brody, who had practiced law for 20 years.

What mattered most was that all four were running in an election — and not just any election. They were facing off in the May 16 primary in which Republican voters have a 4-to-1 advantage over Democrats.

Even though the judicial campaign was nonpartisan, McKenzie traded on his 14 years as a Republican politician.

He paraded his endorsements from such groups as the National Rifle Association, the anti-abortion rights lobby Idaho Chooses Life, the Idaho Farm Bureau, the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, the Idaho Association of Realtors and the Professional Firefighters of Idaho.

No matter that McKenzie was a walking-talking conflict of interest; the tactic worked well enough; McKenzie got 27.7 percent of the vote, second only to Brody, whose own backing among another special interest, the state’s trial attorneys, helped her secure 30.3 percent.

That sent McKenzie and Brody into a runoff in the November election, while Strong and Gutierrez returned to their careers. And in the fall, McKenzie came within 42,264 votes of defeating Brody, who claimed the seat with nearly 54 percent.

McKenzie was far from finished. When a second justice, Daniel Eismann, announced his retirement last spring, the former state senator jumped in again.

But there was a key difference. When Jones opted to serve out his term, his replacement would be selected by the voters.

Eismann is stepping down this month with about 16 months left to run on his tenure. Under those circumstances, the Idaho Judicial Council screens applicants and nominates up to four finalists; Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter would make the final appointment.

But the Judicial Council isn’t interested in endorsements.

It doesn’t care about party affiliation or even political experience.

The council looks for the qualities one would expect from a judge—impartiality, judicial temperament, experience and even a few ideas about how to improve the court system.

More than a dozen people applied; half of them were judges already.

McKenzie took one look at the competition, took another at the Judicial Council and withdrew his candidacy.

“I just didn’t feel like the timing was right,” McKenzie told the Spokesman-Review’s Betsy Russell, “because the person who wins that will have to run for election next year, basically the next election cycle. I just didn’t feel like I wanted to run again in that time frame, that soon.”


Ultimately, the judicial council whittled the list down to four — three District Court judges — John Stegner of Moscow, Greg Moeller of Rexburg and Richard Bevan of Twin Falls, and Boise attorney Rebecca Rainey.

That’s a better outcome. No question about that. Still, from this point forward, politics becomes paramount. Woe to the candidate who has alienated Otter or anyone in his political circle.

The problem here, of course, is that you face two extremes — an election process in which partisan voters can elevate a political hack to the bench vs. a Judicial Council nomination system in which the average Idahoan has virtually no leverage.

How many more times must Idaho travel down this road?

No judge should be elected in a low turnout, partisan primary election. Leave that decision to the broader electorate that engages in the November general election.

But give the voters some meaningful information. Assign the Judicial Council the job of evaluating the candidates and then reporting their findings to a public hungry for relevant information.

Is it too much to ask for a little common sense?

Letter: Sojka wrong on Kootenai County resolution

Bob Sojka, in his recent column (Aug. 3) regarding our “America First” resolution in Kootenai County, tore himself away from self-indulgent literary references just long enough to rightly chastise the joint Republican/Democratic establishment for the Iraq War debacle. What he missed, however, is that it is the same establishment that led us to war then is leading us to war now with Russia.

Conversely, the happy few Republicans like Rep. Jimmy Duncan who voted against war then, also voted against the Russian sanctions bill. Of course, there was one Democrat who voted with the conservatives: Sen. Bernie Sanders voted for peace and freedom with Rand Paul and against pro-war John McCain, Diane Feinstein, and Mike Crapo — and I look forward to the day when the Bernie Sanders wing of the Twin Falls Democratic Party displaces Clintonites like Bob Sojka so we can have honest foreign policy discussions instead of stupid and demeaning pro-war op-eds.

Bjorn Handeen

Coeur d'Alene

Cal Thomas: Sanctuary cities vs. hideouts

In biblical times, a sanctuary city was a place where someone who had committed unintentional manslaughter could find refuge from “the avenger of blood.” If the offender left the sanctuary city, he could be set upon by a relative of the dead person and killed. No sanctuary was available to anyone who committed murder with malice aforethought.

Modern sanctuary cities are less reflective of their ancient namesakes and more like the hideouts established by train robbers and cattle rustlers during the days of the Wild West, as the current sanctuary city movement shields men and women who have broken federal law to reach the United States.

Threats by the Trump administration to hold back federal money from cities that harbor illegal immigrants show some promise. In July, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced new immigration compliance requirements for federal grant programs, including mandates that state and local entities must allow federal immigration access to detention facilities and provide 48 hours’ notice before authorities release an illegal immigrant wanted by federal authorities. If states comply, they get the grants. If they do not, they get nothing.

Miami-Dade County in Florida and Clark County in Nevada have changed their minds about harboring lawbreakers. The Department of Justice has sent letters to both counties certifying that they are now in compliance with the law and are now cleared for federal grants.

Other sanctuary cities are not so cooperative. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has filed a lawsuit against the Department of Justice for threatening to withhold federal funds earmarked for local law enforcement. Given the shooting gallery Chicago has become, it’s difficult to see how more money will improve safety, especially on the city’s South Side, where an average weekend of violence often produces more casualties than in Afghanistan.

In Washington, where today’s “principled stand” can quickly be forgotten, Democrats have changed their view about an immigration plan they consistently supported for a decade. Democrats in Congress previously favored a policy that would have established a points system for selecting legal immigrants. Now that President Trump favors such a system, based on merit, Democrats suddenly oppose it. For such a U-turn the word “hypocrisy” was invented, but the left doesn’t care. They are about votes and winning elections, not actually fixing an immigration system everyone agrees is broken and needs repair.

Under regulations concerning cities of refuge established in the Book of Numbers (35:25) and the code of the Levitical priesthood, once an individual had claimed asylum, he had to be taken from the city to stand trial. If he was found innocent, he was returned under guard to the city in which he had claimed asylum. When the High Priest died, the person could return to his property.

That is a far cry from what modern mayors and governors want for their illegal immigrants. For them there is to be no arrest, no charge and no trial. Some Maryland jurisdictions are talking about adding more localities to those that already allow undocumented immigrants to vote in local elections. It won’t be long before there are demands that they be allowed to vote in federal elections, which appears to be the objective of many Democrats who want and need the votes. They’d likely get them too, once undocumented immigrants become dependent on government programs.

Name a federal law you could get away with breaking. Could you find “sanctuary” away from the government’s long arm?

The lawsuit by Chicago’s mayor will likely reach the Supreme Court. That is what makes the elevation of Neil Gorsuch to that high bench so critical.