Commentary

Jim Jones: Idaho’s state lawyers are top-rate, but we don’t pay them that way

Idaho deputy attorneys general “don’t deserve the insulting claims made about their competence,” writes guest columnist Jim Jones.

October 27, 2022 4:00 am
A courtroom with many seats filled but many left empty, and an attorney makes oral argument

Attorneys for Planned Parenthood Great Northwest and for the state of Idaho argued before the Idaho Supreme Court in the first hearing in August 2022 over multiple lawsuits against the state’s anti-abortion laws. (Screenshot from Idaho In Session)

During this election silly-season, we’ve heard all kinds of crazy claims made by those running for office. You don’t like to think that someone would make claims that are untrue, but it definitely happens. When a suspect claim is made, it would be handy to find someone who is informed on the subject to get the straight scoop.

Take, for instance, claims that the Idaho Office of the Attorney General “needs to have better lawyers” or that “the level of lawyering in the office” needs to be raised. Those claims would certainly indicate that the lawyers employed by Attorney General Lawrence Wasden are not up to the task of giving good legal advice and representation to governmental agencies and officials.

That is, in fact, simply not true.

The 125 deputy attorneys general (DAGs) who perform the legal work for practically every agency of state government are a great value. They are top-rate lawyers, but we get their services at bargain-basement rates.

While I don’t want to set myself up as an expert on this subject, I do have as good a basis for evaluating and defending the competence of Idaho’s DAGs as anyone I know. I served eight years as Idaho’s attorney general, during which I interviewed and hired many dozens of lawyers, including Wasden, Idaho’s current attorney general. During my next 15 years of private law practice, I frequently litigated against DAGs who represented a wide range of governmental agencies. Then, as a member of the Idaho Supreme Court for 12 years, I witnessed how DAGs handled themselves in hundreds of cases.

Justices John Stegner and Colleen Zahn
Justice Colleen Zahn, right, asks questions of Deputy Attorney General Megan Larrondo at a hearing of the Idaho Supreme Court. (Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman)

Throughout those 35 years in which I dealt with practically every type of case, I can say that Idaho’s DAGs were every bit as good as other lawyers who made many times their salary. During my Idaho Supreme Court years, I often saw them outshine high-priced lawyers from large out-of-state law firms.

They don’t deserve the insulting claims made about their competence.

A recent instance illustrates my point. A veteran reporter, who observed the Oct. 6 Idaho Supreme Court arguments for and against Idaho’s abortion laws, wrote that the DAG who argued to uphold the laws “did her job admirably. She made cogent arguments.”

On the other hand, a supposed out-of-state legal expert hired by the Idaho Legislature made an embarrassing presentation. That “expert” charged $375 per hour, compared with the average DAG pay of just over $48 per hour.

Many DAGs serve for a time in the attorney general’s office, then go on to better paying jobs with prestigious law firms. Others find such satisfaction in making a difference for Idahoans that they make the AG’s office a career.

Legislative interim committee meets at the Idaho Capitol
Idaho Deputy Attorney General Julie Weaver speaks to the Committee on Federalism on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, at the Idaho Capitol. (Clark Corbin/Idaho Capital Sun)

I know of one DAG who became a nationally recognized water law expert.

Another DAG was so highly regarded by Idaho lawyers that she now serves on the Idaho Supreme Court.

The DAGs are high quality lawyers, who work at bargain-basement rates because they love their work. Wasden has assembled a truly remarkable staff of competent lawyers, and they deserve to be recognized for the valuable service they provide to the people of Idaho.

Wasden email to staff regarding Labrador's disparagement

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden sent an email to staff in response to remarks made by the Republican candidate for attorney general. (Courtesy of Jim Jones)

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Jim Jones
Jim Jones

Jim Jones served as Idaho attorney general for eight years (1983-1991) and as a justice of the Idaho Supreme Court for 12 years (2005-2017). His weekly columns are collected at JJCommonTater.com.

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