State of Judiciary outlines challenges of pandemic, need for resources

Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Bevan delivers the State of the Judiciary to the House of Representatives on Jan. 26, 2022.

By Ruth Brown, Idaho Reports

Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice G. Richard Bevan focused Wednesday on how the courts have evolved during the pandemic, continuing to serve those who fall into the judicial system. 

Bevan spoke before the Idaho Senate and again before the Idaho House of Representatives on Wednesday, delivering the annual State of the Judiciary address. 

With the exception of a temporary pause in jury trials and grand jury proceedings, the courts have continued to operate in the pandemic, Bevan said. Hundreds of trials took place across this state in 2021, using precautions, at times when the health guidance allowed for gatherings.

“We expect it will take at least a couple of years to fully address the effects of the pandemic,” Bevan said. “Idaho’s courts still face a dramatically higher number of unresolved cases compared to before COVID-19 reached this state. As of December 2021, that included more than 41,000 pending criminal cases, an increase of 29% over December 2019. On the flipside, pending civil caseloads have declined almost 6% over that same period.” 

In Idaho and across the country, jury trials are rare, meaning many defendants still have court hearings. On average, only 2% of criminal trials went to trial in 2018 and 2019, he said.

Technology and remote work for some has been useful. In 2021, Idaho’s courts held hundreds of thousands of hearings via Zoom, a platform that was not planned or budgeted for when it was implemented, Bevan said. 

Bevan outlined some requests for fiscal year 2023, including compensation increases for district judges, in part to improve recruitment for those positions. The court also requests funding for new deputy trial court administrators in each judicial district.

Bevan hopes to establish more domestic violence courts and resources for treatment courts, a move that would require approval for more spending authority from lawmakers. 

He also asked for the Fourth District to add one district judge and court reporter, chambered in Elmore County, and two magistrate judges, chambered in Ada County.

“In fiscal year 2021, the Fourth District had 1,628 cases per magistrate judge — a volume of work that requires magistrate judges elected in Boise and Valley counties to spend two days a week presiding over Ada County cases,” he told legislators. “The level of administrative work in the Fourth District also means its administrative district judge cannot carry a full traditional caseload. The Fourth District would like to expand its treatment courts in response to need but cannot do so without additional judicial support.”

Bevan also spoke about the work of the Idaho Behavioral Health Council, in which the judicial branch participates, and will make some recommendations to the legislature around civil commitments, reducing ambiguity in the process. The Council supports the potential legislation. 

<strong>Ruth Brown</strong> | Producer
Ruth Brown | Producer

Ruth Brown grew up in South Dakota and her first job out of college was covering the South Dakota Legislature. She’s since moved on to Idaho lawmakers. Brown spent 10 years working in print journalism, including newspapers such as the Idaho Statesman and Idaho Press, where she’s covered everything from the correctional system to health care issues. She joined Idaho Reports in 2021 and looks forward to telling stories about how state policy can impact the lives of regular Idahoans.

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