New judges could be assigned to Idaho Panhandle

by Ralph Bartholdt
Staff Writer | March 21, 2020 1:00 AM

North Idaho is in line to get several new judges.

The Idaho House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee Monday by unanimous vote approved changing a statute to add one more district judge to Idaho’s First District, which includes the five northern counties.

A bill to add two magistrate judges to the Panhandle judiciary is also being considered in Boise.

The First District had for years, by statute, operated with six district judges to oversee felony cases.

It has been more than a decade since the number of district judges increased in North Idaho. Given the wild increase in the area’s population, it makes sense another judge would be assigned to help with the equally burgeoning case load, said Kootenai County Public Defender Anne Taylor.

According to the census bureau, North Idaho is one of the fastest-growing areas in one of the fastest-growing states in the nation. The growth is reflected in the traffic counts and court cases.

Civil cases in the district’s magistrate courts have increased from 11,158 in 2015 to more than 12,100 last year, while district judges carried an average of 447 cases in 2019 and magistrate judges carried an average of 1,900 cases annually.

When he addressed the Legislature last month, First District Administrative Judge Richard Christensen of Coeur d’Alene said magistrates in the five northern counties carry loads much higher — more than 200 cases higher — than elsewhere in Idaho.

The case loads of district court judges is also in the upper percentile compared to the rest of the state.

“The most notable change I’ve seen is an increase in the sheer number of cases,” Christensen said.

The growth has required district judges and magistrates to be shared across counties, and many judges volunteer at specialty courts, such as drug court.

“We do our best to maximize our resources,” Christensen said.

Rep. Paul Amador, who carried the Senate bill supporting a change in the statute for another district judge, said case numbers in the Panhandle exceed most other districts.

“If you look at the number of cases on average, District 1 is significantly higher than other districts,” Amador said.

Adding more resources is a sensible response, he said.

The appropriation bill asks for $543,600 from the general fund to pay for two new magistrates — to reside in Kootenai County — and a district judge who will reside in Bonner County. It will also pay for an additional court reporter.

The state has 95 magistrates and 46 district judges, according to the Idaho Supreme Court. The last time a district judge was added to the First District was in 2007 and the Supreme Court received an appropriation for one Panhandle magistrate in 2016.

Although case numbers statewide fluctuate, demands on judicial resources have increased because caseloads are more complex, according to the Supreme Court. Felony case numbers have increased statewide, according to the Supreme Court.