The list of applicants is in for an opening on the Idaho Supreme Court, and for the first time in state history, more women have applied than men.
“I think it’s a watershed moment for women in the state bar,” said Justice Robyn Brody, who currently is the only woman serving on the state’s highest court.
Six women and five men applied for the opening, including four who have been finalists for previous openings on the Supreme Court. Among those four, three are women.
Idaho has been working for years to improve the representation of women in its judiciary, but the state currently ranks next-to-last in the nation, with just 17 percent female state judges. In 2012, Idaho ranked last at just 12 percent.
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, since he took office in 2007, has appointed numerous judges including four Supreme Court justices. But he’s not yet appointed a women to the high court. Otter recently told the Idaho Press that he wants the best jurist, but that it would “delight” him if, once all factors were weighed, “the best candidate was a woman.”
The 11 applicants for the new Idaho Supreme Court opening are: Boise lawyers Thomas Banducci, Amanda K. Brailsford, Christopher P. Graham, Rebecca Rainey, Christine Salmi and Mary York; Idaho Division of Human Resources Administrator Susan Buxton; 1st District Judge Richard Christensen of Coeur d’Alene; 7th District Judge Gregory Moeller of Rexburg; Micron Technology senior director of patent licensing and European litigation David Westergard; and 3rd District Judge Susan Wiebe of Fruitland.
Salmi, Wiebe and Moeller were finalists for the last opening on the high court; Rainey and Moeller were finalists for the previous opening last fall.
The Idaho Judicial Council will hold public interviews with all 11 applicants in the fall, and members of the Idaho State Bar will be surveyed about their qualifications. The council then will recommend up to four finalists to Otter, who will make the final appointment; the position on the court opens Dec. 31, when current Justice Joel Horton retires.
Chief Justice Roger Burdick hailed the applicant pool, saying efforts the court initiated in 2008 to get more high-quality and diverse candidates to apply for judicial openings in Idaho are paying off. “We’ve been working on it for a decade now, and as a result we have some remarkable improvements,” he said.
Burdick also praised Idaho Women Lawyers, which has been actively reaching out to women lawyers in Idaho who are considering applying for judgeships. “There’s a large kudo that goes out to Idaho Women Lawyers,” the chief justice said.
In the fall of 2008, concern over judicial recruitment in Idaho rose after the council received just three applications for a district judgeship in Ada County, and only recommended two as qualified finalists to the governor. The next year, just two candidates were recommended as qualified for two 5th Judicial District judgeships — and they were the same two, leaving the governor with little choice.
“We felt that we were not getting the qualified candidates of any race, gender, etc.,” Burdick said. “We just weren’t getting the numbers, No. 1.” Burdick, who has served on the Judicial Council for nearly two decades and, as chief justice, currently chairs it, said, “And we weren’t getting the outstanding candidates. We had to know why.”
For many of the state’s judgeships, “Absolutely no women were applying then — absolutely none,” Burdick said.
The court tasked Idaho Court of Appeals Judges Sergio Gutierrez and Karen Lansing with enhancing judicial recruitment in Idaho. They formed a judicial recruitment committee, surveyed Idaho lawyers, and made sweeping recommendations to improve outreach about Idaho court openings to lawyers in Idaho, including women and minorities.
Burdick said the pool of applicants for Idaho judgeships at all levels has improved and become more diverse. “I’ve just been really impressed with the people applying,” he said.
Brody said, “I think it’s an incredible list of candidates, and I think the Judicial Council and the governor have a very tough decision ahead of them.”
Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.