BOISE — U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill, who has served on the federal bench in Idaho for 26 years, will take senior status in August, meaning he’ll be eligible to take a reduced caseload and new President Joe Biden will appoint a new federal judge for Idaho.
Winmill, 68, sent a letter to the president last week notifying him that he plans to retire from regular active service on Aug. 16, 2021, and assume senior status. “It is my intention to continue to render substantial judicial service as a senior judge,” Winmill wrote.
That’s the same path former longtime U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge followed, taking senior status but continuing to hear cases for years longer, into his 80s. Lodge took senior status in July 2015, but a new judge wasn’t appointed to replace him until Judge David Nye was sworn in on Aug. 1, 2017 — meaning Winmill was the district’s only full-time judge for more than two years.
During that time, the federal court system declared a judicial emergency in Idaho due to the shortage of judges, and visiting judges had to be brought in from other states to hear cases.
Idaho is one of just three states with only two U.S. district judges; it hasn’t gotten an additional judgeship in 60 years, though its caseloads have soared. Idaho’s congressional delegation has long pushed for the state to get an additional judgeship, and the nonpartisan Judicial Council of the United States has been recommending a third judgeship be added for Idaho since 2003.
By comparison, the Eastern District of Washington has a caseload similar to Idaho’s, but has six district judges.
Winmill’s move will have the effect of increasing Idaho’s available judges once his replacement is sworn in.
“I can’t say that I felt like I was overburdened or overworked,” Winmill told the Idaho Press. “That had really nothing to do with it. But the District of Idaho needs help, and by taking senior status, we’ll effectively get another judge. I’m going to continue handling a full caseload, so we’ll go from two to three judges.”
He noted that when a district gets more judges, it also gets more staff. “So it’ll take some pressure off the clerk’s office as well,” he said.
“I think it’s almost unconscionable not to go senior as soon as I can, just to give the district some relief,” the longtime judge said.
Winmill is a graduate of Idaho State University and Harvard Law School who practiced law in Colorado and in Idaho before being appointed a state district judge in Pocatello 1987. He was appointed to the federal court by President Bill Clinton on Aug. 14, 1995.
Long an advocate of merit selection for judges, rather than just political appointment, Winmill went through a merit-selection process when he was appointed, and said he hopes the White House and Idaho’s senators will follow that course to choose his replacement. But he said it’s their call.
“I think the most important part of being a federal judge … is to know that you’ve got complete judicial independence, and to be able to make really hard decisions and follow the Constitution,” he said.
Federal judges are appointed by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. They serve for life, but are eligible to take senior status at age 65.
NEW CANYON JUDGE PROPOSED
Canyon County would get an additional state district judge starting Oct. 1, 2021, under legislation introduced late last week in the House Judiciary Committee. Rep. Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell, is the bill’s sponsor.
Canyon County is in the 3rd Judicial District, which has seen increasing felony court filings since it last got a new district judgeship in 2013. Also, the county has seen its population grow by 22% from 2013 to 2020, and the region continues to grow, the bill’s Statement of Purpose notes. The 3rd Judicial District includes Adams, Canyon, Gem, Owyhee, Payette and Washington counties.
In fiscal year 2020, 3rd District judges had an average of 373 filings per active judge, compared to 331 for judges statewide.
The 3rd District currently has seven district judges; the eighth one would have chambers in Canyon County.
The Idaho Supreme Court, in its budget request for next year, is asking lawmakers to approve the new Canyon district judge plus two magistrate judges, also in Canyon County. Last year, lawmakers approved adding a district judge in Bonner County and two magistrates in Kootenai County; two years ago, Ada County got an additional district judge and two magistrates. All the additions were driven by growing court caseloads.
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.