BOISE — Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice G. Richard Bevan highlighted increasing concerns for judges’ safety in this year’s State of the Judiciary address, while calling for judicial pay increases this year.
“These interactions at their homes, at their places of respite and peace, are not just an affront to the rule of law, but also a danger that we ask you to address,” Bevan said Wednesday morning on the Senate floor.
He asked that legislation be supported that reinforces the independence of the judiciary and prioritizes judges’ safety.
Bevan himself has been approached at his home, as have other judges, according to Idaho Supreme Court spokesperson Nate Poppino.
“We had a situation with a person showing up at a judge’s kid’s softball games,” Poppino wrote in an email. “We had another situation involving a person making threats amid a custody dispute to show up at places where a judge’s family worked and went to school.”
Additionally, the court’s security team tracked threats of possible violence made online, Poppino said, and it has become more common for judges to be doxxed and threatened following contentious hearings and rulings.
“We have even dealt with people from other states sending letters and making phone calls to judges, court staff, attorneys and others, threatening harm over the handling of specific cases,” he said.
Bevan said in his speech that threats to judges in their homes and online are deterring people from the profession. He said a survey of Idaho State Bar members found their most common concern about becoming a judge was “our increasingly polarized political environment.”
He noted the recent killing of a former Wisconsin judge in what was deemed a “targeted attack” and attacks on a New Jersey judge that killed her son and on an Illinois judge that killed her husband and mother.
Senate Minority Leader Sen. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, said she was struck by Bevan’s comments regarding judges’ safety.
“It made an impression on me, for him to come before the Senate and one of the main points discussed is safety,” Wintrow said. “I think it’s probably pretty common for a lot of people right now.”
Rep. Bruce Skaug, R-Nampa, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said his committee will likely see a bill coming forward that addresses judges’ safety.
“Judicial safety is very important in these polarizing times,” Skaug said.
Bevan also called for salary increases for judges this session. Last year, the Legislature passed a bill that tied salary increases with major changes to the Judicial Council and the judge selection process, but Gov. Brad Little vetoed it. Lawmakers ended the session having approved raises for every state employee except judges.
Sen. Todd Lakey, R-Nampa, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he supported raising judges’ pay and hopes the issues of their salaries and the Judicial Council will be taken up separately this year.
The judicial branch this year is making a general fund request of around $61.5 million for fiscal year 2024, the Legislative Budget Book shows. In fiscal year 2023, the branch’s appropriation from the general fund was nearly $59 million.
The governor recommended around $1.2 million for judicial compensation in this year’s budget proposal.
Bevan said the pool for judicial openings is too small, in part because of stringent requirements for who can become a judge in Idaho, including practicing law for at least five years, legally residing in the state and being a member of the Idaho Bar for at least two years. Compounding that, he said, is the pay for judges is not competitive compared to what experienced attorneys can make in the market.
“For district court openings in 2022 we averaged just five attorneys per opening,” he said. “With no disrespect to those who applied, this is simply inadequate.”
Skaug said he agreed with Bevan’s call for judicial salary increase.
“I think last year, they were robbed,” he said.
He said that although he’s not normally one to support spending more taxpayer money, “We need to have judges who are paid sufficiently.”
Wintrow also supported raises for judges.
Bevan also highlighted the courts’ technological needs. He said the remote proceedings established during the pandemic have helped expand access and will continue to be in use even though the court is rescinding emergency orders.
The Court Technology Fund, which is funded through fees on civil and criminal court cases, is typically used to pay for the courts’ tech needs. He said technology costs have increased an average of 9% per year for the past five years, while the court fees and fines that support the fund have declined an average of 5% each year.
The court is working with a consultant to reassess its technology costs and develop a stable way to fund them, but is asking the Legislature this year for short-term support of the Court Technology Fund.
In addition to the courts’ challenges, Bevan noted a number of successes, including treatment court outcomes and collaboration with the Idaho Behavioral Health Council.
He said drug, veterans, DUI and mental health courts are now available in 86% of the state’s local courtrooms; these diversion programs emphasize treatment rather than incarceration.
Nearly 500 people graduated from treatment courts in fiscal year 2022, and 36 drug-free babies were born to mothers participating in those programs, he said.
Bevan told the lawmakers that the work the courts does is “wide-ranging and weighty.”
“I hope today I have helped each of you better understand the work of our branch,” he said at the close. “With your support, we will continue to accomplish our duty of delivering fair and reasoned justice every day.”