BOISE — The Senate Judiciary and Rules Committee voted unanimously Monday to kill a bill that would remove the requirement that every county in the state have a magistrate judge.
The issue is of prime importance in Bonneville County, and in nearby rural counties such as Butte and Clark. Bonneville County has so few magistrates relative to its caseload that more than 70 percent of its cases are heard by magistrates who have traveled in from other counties.
Meanwhile magistrates from some low-population counties are almost never at home, spending hours on the road or sometimes staying for a week in other counties where they pick up the bulk of their caseload.
It’s an issue that Chief Justice Roger Burdick highlighted in his state of the judiciary address, indicating its high priority for the head of the judicial branch.
Senate Bill 1104 would have removed the state requirement that every county have a magistrate judge. The change would affect only nine counties which each have less than 0.4 percent of the state’s population: Adams, Bear Lake, Butte, Camas, Clark, Custer, Lewis, Lincoln and Oneida.
It wouldn’t affect sitting magistrates. Instead, it would allow the Supreme Court to eliminate a low-population county’s magistrate after a magistrate retires, or if a magistrate requests to be moved to a higher-population county.
Senior District Judge Barry Wood presented the bill on behalf of the judicial branch.
“The court believed that it was appropriate to bring this policy question back to the attention of the Idaho Legislature,” Wood said. “Specifically, whether the Legislature wanted to continue funding new positions, or to allow the court to relocate a handful of these judgeships from the least populated counties to where the need was most significant.”
But the bill ran into opposition from the Idaho Association of Counties, which argued it would complicate relations between the courts and the counties. And it would disenfranchise voters in the nine low-population counties.
Republican Sen. Bart Davis, an Idaho Falls lawyer, noted that Bonneville County got its last new magistrate in the 1980s. There has been significant population growth since then, and magistrate courts have picked up a significant number of family law cases that used to be covered only by district courts.
“It violates my sense of what is right for my county,” Davis, told the other committee members. “And if this was your county, I think you’d feel the same way.”
But ultimately it was Davis who made a motion to kill the bill.
There are three major concerns that lawmakers were juggling, Davis said.
First, some higher-population counties, especially Bonneville, are dramatically understaffed when it comes to magistrate judges while magistrate judges in lower-population counties often don’t have enough cases to fill their time in their home counties. This means magistrates from counties such as Clark spend a huge amount of “windshield time” travelling back and forth to pick up cases in counties such as Bonneville.
Second, if lower-population counties such as Clark were to lose their magistrate judge to a county with more cases, it would mean the defendants in that county would face a magistrate they had no part in electing.
Finally, in the current situation people in high-population counties often stand before a judge that they had no hand in electing, for example, when a Bonneville County defendant has their case heard by a magistrate judge from Clark County. In Bonneville County, this happens more than 70 percent of the time.
“(Senate Bill) 1104 isn’t the solution, but it is the invitation to the solution,” Davis said.
Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, agreed.
“What Senator Davis said,” he said.
The vote to kill the bill was unanimous.
It’s possible that another bill could surface in the month or so left in the Legislative session, or that the issue will have to wait a year.
It’s still possible the Bonneville Court system could see some relief this year. The courts have asked the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee to create a new magistrate judge position in Bonneville County.
Reporter Bryan Clark can be reached at 542-6751.