Idaho chief justice: New judges are tough to find

BOISE, Idaho (AP) Idaho's Chief Justice Roger Burdick says the state is struggling to find qualified attorneys who are willing to sit on the bench, partly because of the relatively low pay given judges and the ever-growing caseload faced by the courts.

Burdick made the comments as part of the Idaho Supreme Court's annual State of the Judiciary Address given to lawmakers on Thursday.

Idaho's judiciary handled more than 436,000 filed cases and 655 appeals in 2012, Burdick said, with judges traveling more than 309,000 to get to various hearings and courthouses. Leaders in the court system have been looking at ways technology can help ease those burdens, he said.

"Our vision includes real-time data from every court in the state immediately available to every other court and to all individuals who require access to court information," Burdick said. "We also envision an expanded statewide telepresence for litigants, attorneys, judges and the public."

Efforts are also under way to recruit potential judges, he said.

"We now hold open discussion groups in those counties where district judges are being replaced concerning the benefits of starting a career in the judiciary," Burdick said.

Still, he said, Idaho has a significant problem in recruiting district judges, and those bench seats are no longer considered a highly sought-after position.

"The Judicial Council can rarely send a full slate of four names to the governor for appointment. ... The reasons are many the overwhelming workload that many district judges face in terms of numbers, as well as complexity; the prospect of contested election; as well as the inadequate compensation of that position," he said.

The types of attorneys who meet the experience and age requirements for a judicial seat have already built a client base and a professional network, but they have to sever those relationships to become judges, Burdick said. If the new judge then loses a contested election, they have to start over in building a business. Idaho ranks 46th in the nation for compensation rates for most judges, Burdick noted, and that makes it tough to attract qualified attorneys to the bench.

Last year the court system had four magistrate judge positions that went unfilled. Two magistrates have since been hired, Burdick said, and he hopes to fill one of the two remaining vacancies later this year and the last one in early 2014.

"Numerous court employee positions, however, remain vacant statewide and significant reductions have been made in all court operations," Burdick said.

The chief justice also reminded lawmakers that the judicial branch was asking the Legislature to repeal the sunset provision that would end an emergency surcharge placed on some criminal and traffic cases on June 30. The surcharge filled a $4 million funding gap for Idaho's court system. The state can't afford to replace that $4 million out of the general fund, Burdick said.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.