Raising the Bar

Alumni judges take their places on the bench

When Elizabeth (Pike) Martin ’79 arrived at The College of Idaho, she had no way of knowing that she and two of her classmates were destined to become judges.

Martin, who became a judge for the Pierce County Superior Court in Washington in 2010, arrived at the College as a pre-med major. Yet from a student body of just a few hundred, Martin would reach the bench alongside Candy (Wagahoff) Dale ’79, a federal magistrate judge for the District of Idaho, and Lansing Haynes ’78, a judge in Idaho’s First Judicial District in Coeur d'Alene.

“At end of my sophomore year, Dr. [Ralph] Sayre in the history department asked me if I had ever thought of law school,” Martin said. “We talked about why I would be well-suited to that and after that I was focused on law school.”

During a clerkship with the Washington State Supreme Court, Martin first discovered a passion for the independence and neutral position held by judges. Like Dale, Haynes and numerous other C of I alumni, Martin’s passion and the knowledge she gained at the College ultimately would lead her to the bench.

A supreme role

Gerald Schroeder ’61 didn’t come to The College of Idaho considering law as a career, either. But during Schroeder’s junior year, Professor George Wolfe asked him to take an aptitude test given to first-year law students. The high score Schroeder received planted a seed, and he decided to take the LSAT and apply for law school, with no backup plan if he wasn’t accepted.

It was a decision that paid off for Schroeder, who has served as a judge for 44 years, culminating with his appointment to the Idaho Supreme Court and a four-year stint as chief justice of the court.

Schroeder, who continues to hear cases throughout Idaho as a senior judge, said professors at the C of I prepared him well for his responsibilities on the bench.

“They taught you the subject matter and taught you analysis, but they did not attempt to funnel you into a particular mindset,” he said. “That aspect of education to me is critical. Their interest was focused on giving you the skills to go forward making decisions on your own.”

Among Schroeder’s proudest accomplishments during his tenure as a judge are promoting adoption of the uniform probate code in Idaho and many others states, playing a key role in creating Idaho’s laws governing condominiums, developing the Law Learning Center to improve legal education in Idaho, and leading an effort to create a more modern juvenile detention center for Ada County.

“I enjoy hearing cases involving issues that are critical to Idaho’s economy and critical to people’s lives,” he said. “That’s extremely rewarding.”

An incubator for judges

Dr. Kerry Hunter, a current professor of political economy, traces the College’s success in preparing judges back to its rigorous liberal arts education.

“We don’t have a particular point of view we’re trying to promote,” Hunter said. “Our desire is to challenge students to critically examine whatever point of view they come in with. We intentionally ask questions to challenge their convictions.”

Through that process, Hunter says, students graduate with an openness to hearing different points of view – a crucial trait for any good judge.

“We encourage students to wrestle with questions of fairness, even if we disagree about what exactly that means,” Hunter said. “You have to do more than think critically. You have to be committed to leading a responsible, respectful life, and those are good questions for a judge to wrestle with as well.”

In 1997, Hunter started a mock court class which places students in the roles of the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices, with local attorneys making arguments before the students. Mock court courses at other colleges typically place students in the role of attorneys arguing before a court; the C of I class is the only one Hunter is aware of that places undergraduates in the role of the Supreme Court justices.

For Dena (James) Smith ’97, an administrative law judge with Nevada’s Department of Taxation, participating in Hunter’s inaugural mock Supreme Court class provided a launching point for her legal career.

“It was the mock Supreme Court class that first introduced me to the thought that I could do what those attorneys standing in front of me were doing,” she said. “I had a preconceived notion that attorneys were boring and did a lot of paperwork, but I discovered that law was interesting in so many ways because it can affect almost every aspect of our lives.”

Playing the role of then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Smith gained her first exposure to reading legal briefs and the process by which cases come before the Supreme Court. It turned out to be a transformative experience.

After graduating from law school and clerking with a state district court in Nevada, Smith joined the state attorney general’s office before being named a judge in 2005. Now, she’s one of two administrative law judges for Nevada’s Department of Taxation.

While some might consider tax law a perfect cure for insomnia, Smith enjoys the broad range of issues that come to her court.

“One of the tax issues we deal with, for example, is the state’s live entertainment tax and this being Nevada, there is a huge variety of live entertainment taking place,” Smith said. “There’s always a new industry to learn about and I am still being constantly challenged and learning new things.

“I think the [C of I’s] liberal arts education – where it challenges you to learn about so many different areas of knowledge and different ways of thinking – has helped me as a judge because I’m constantly learning and being challenged.”

Bradly Ford ’76, appointed first as a Canyon County magistrate judge in 1997 and then as a District Judge in 2009, also noted the impact his C of I professors made not only on his career, but also in life.

 “In my life’s journey, I frequently and fondly recall their nurturing patience and guidance,” Ford said. “The concern for students and accessibility of all my professors was very helpful. Their dedication to students was inspiring and emphasized the importance of the never-ending pursuit of knowledge.”

Making a mark

In 2008, Dale became the first woman appointed to the federal bench in Idaho when she was named a magistrate judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho.

“Being the first woman appointed to the federal bench in Idaho definitely was significant,” Dale said. “When you’re looking at who is sitting on the bench, it sends the message to women who are attorneys now that there could be a place for them.”

As a federal magistrate judge, Dale hears cases involving civil rights, the environment, taxation, drug trafficking, fraud and a variety of other issues. That breadth could be overwhelming if not for her experiences at C of I.

“You definitely learn how to study at The College of Idaho,” Dale said. “The English classes with Dr. Attebery taught me how to pull out the details that applied to a certain situation and how to write clearly.”

Dale said the small size of the College and the teamwork and camaraderie fostered amongst her classmates and professors continue to be an influence now that she’s on the bench.

“When I talk to young lawyers in Idaho, I tell them about how small the state is and how that’s a good thing because you get to be known for your credibility and integrity,” she said. “Starting with my experience at The College of Idaho, I developed the confidence that people will listen when I speak up.”