BOISE, Idaho (AP) — One of the most important races in the upcoming May primary election is an open spot on the Idaho Supreme Court, but the little-known position isn't expected to draw voters despite attracting a wide range of candidates.
Court Chief Justice Jim Jones announced in March that he would not run for a third, six-year term on the state's highest court. The non-partisan vacancy opened the door to four hopeful seeking the seat.
Candidates include Clive Strong, a longtime deputy attorney general; Curt McKenzie, a seven-term Republican state senator; Robyn Brody, an attorney from Rupert; and Idaho Court of Appeals Judge Sergio Gutierrez.
Strong has worked in the attorney general's office for more than 30 years, and helped lead one of the state's largest cases regarding water rights adjudication. A key priority for Strong, if elected, would be to restore public confidence in the judicial system.
"We see the public turning away from the court because of the costs and time it takes," he said. "(But) the consequence of meditation is that it's private."
McKenzie said that a judicial career had been a lifelong dream. He promised to recuse himself from a case that came before the high court if he had somehow been involved with it because of his time at the Idaho Legislature. McKenzie said it was a top priority for him to develop more specialty courts, such as drug or domestic violence courts.
Meanwhile, Brody said she would fight for the rights of Idahoans and protect the separation between the judiciary and legislative branches. Even though she came from a small town, Brody cited that she's had experience taking on big cases that involved suing state agencies.
Gutierrez, who has served as a judge for more than 20 years, stressed his longtime independence and judicial experience as key factors that make him stand out against the rest of the field.
"I was and am the only Latino judge in the state. Because of that, some people see me as a symbol of progress. That is my burden and also my honor," he said.
Idaho is currently just one of two states with no supreme court justices who are female or people of color.
When asked about the importance of diversity, McKenzie and Strong both argued that diversity in education and backgrounds must be taken into account as much as ethnicity and gender for judicial positions.
Brody said the question was difficult for her because she was the only one in a pink suit, but she believed that she "had never been about her gender." But Gutierrez argued that diversity is important because the public should be able to see their community on the bench.
Idaho bans judicial candidates from directly asking for campaign contributions in an effort to insulate judges. Instead, justice candidates are only allowed to solicit contributions through a committee.
Protecting impartiality on the state supreme court is critical as justices have a heavy hand in reshaping the state for years. However, while the post is important, it has historically not been a major attraction to get voters to the polls.
That's largely due to the multiple restrictions candidates have throughout their campaign. For example, candidates cannot talk about their past or current political party affiliations — even though political party registrations are public records.
Candidates will need to secure a majority of the vote in the May 17 election. If not, then the top two candidates will compete in a runoff election in November. The last time a supreme court justice race required a runoff was in 1998.
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