An appeal by Fremont County Prosecutor Karl Lewies was one of eight heard by members of the Idaho Supreme Court this week.
The five justices, convening in Idaho Falls, heard the appeals Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
Lewies is appealing a March 2013 fine imposed by District Judge Gregory Moeller.
While the Supreme Court usually issues a decision on the appeals it hears within 60 to 180 days, there is no deadline set by law.
During the Lewies appeal hearing, Justice Daniel T. Eismannsaid the case is the first of its kind in Idaho, which means the court’s judgment likely will establish a precedent.
“There’s no case quite like this,” Eismann said. “I can’t imagine an attorney getting himself into this situation.”
Moeller ordered Lewies to pay $1,185 in legal fees incurred by Fremont County. Those fees stemmed from Lewies filing petitions against the county on behalf of two private clients. At the time, he was the county’s prosecutor-elect, meaning he had not yet assumned office.
Lewies was elected county prosecutor Nov. 6, 2012. He filed the petitions for his private clients Nov. 23, 2012, before he was sworn in as prosecutor Jan. 14, 2013.
“My clients had private farm roads put on the map as public roads,” Lewies said. “They didn’t want everyone driving down their roads with RVs and stuff, so they asked me to file the petitions.”
After weeks-long legal battle between Lewies and the county — represented by then-deputy prosecuting attorney Blake Hall — the county filed a motion to disqualify Lewies on Jan. 7, 2013. That same day, Lewies withdrew his representation of the petitioners, acknowledging that “a conflict of interest will arise,” according to the affidavit. But Lewies did not withdraw from representing the county.
Later, Moeller barred Lewies from representing both the county and the private parties. Moeller also ordered Lewies pay attorney fees for filing the motion to withdraw.
Moeller declined comment Wednesday. But in his written decision on the sanctions, Moeller said Lewies acted in an “ethically questionable” manner.
“An objective view of the circumstances suggested that it was unreasonable and misguided for Lewies to file an action against a known future client,” Moeller said. “In essence, Lewies pursued the one course of action that would render him useless to both his current and future clients.”
At the hearing before Moeller, Lewies said his then-newly appointed deputy prosecutor, Billie Siddoway, could take his place representing the county. Siddoway filed a Notice of Conflict of Interest on Feb. 6, 2013. Four days later, Lewies fired Siddoway and hired Ryan Dustin.
Moeller demanded Lewies and Dustin consult with the Idaho State Bar about the ethics of remaining involved in the case. A short time later, both Lewies and Dustin withdrew from the case.
Moeller then ordered Lewies to pay the incorporated attorney’s fees, citing Rule 11 of the Idaho Rules of Civil Procedure. The rule allows judges to order monetary sanctions against attorneys who disrupt the legal administrative process.
“The court has discretion to award sanctions for misguided filings or professional misconduct,” said Hall, who is representing the county in the appeal before Idaho Supreme Court.
University of Idaho College of Law professor Donald Burnett Jr. said Rule 11 helps judges keep things running smoothly in civil cases.
“Rule 11 is just a tool in the toolbox of the judge to manage the courts,” Burnett said. “The primary purpose is to make sure attorneys file papers based on facts.”
Lewies maintains that under Rule 11, he did nothing wrong. He said he couldn’t have filed “junk” because Moeller ruled in favor of his former clients — their roads are listed as private.
“I filed a good, solid paper that satisfied the requirement that I conducted a proper investigation into legal basis and factual basis,” he said.