Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Magistrate Court

By Hon. Rudolph E. “Rick” Carnaroli

Fifty years have passed since the State of Idaho’s first Magistrate Judges took the bench. The creation of the Magistrate Division of the District Court was the product of in excess of a decade of work throughout the 1960’s on statewide court reform. In 1960, the Idaho State Bar formally recommended court reform.  In 1962, the voters of Idaho passed an amendment to the Constitution of the State of Idaho to enable legislative efforts to implement statewide court reform. Finally, in 1969, the Idaho Legislature completed its legislation to make the work of many become a reality. Among the advocates for court reform were members and leaders from the Idaho Judicial Branch, the Idaho Legislature, and the Idaho State Bar, as well as the residents of the State of Idaho who all wanted a better system of local justice.[i]

On January 11, 1971, the first Magistrate Judges took office.  The Magistrate Divisions of the District Courts replaced the local “people’s courts,” which were the justice of the peace courts, the municipal courts, and the probate courts.  A new lower court system under a more centralized management structure administered by the Idaho Supreme Court was open for business with the promise that it would better meet the needs of the times and Idaho citizens.

Serving Communities Better

            One has to wonder if those who championed court reform could see beyond what they were working to create: a statewide lower court system better suited to serve all communities throughout Idaho.  Did they foresee that the Magistrate Judges would become such an integral piece of the fabric of the Idaho Judiciary?  After all, the Idaho Legislature created the Magistrate Division under its constitutional authority to create “inferior courts.”  A better choice of words might have been “lower courts.”

Did they envision that the Magistrate Division would be much more than a division of “inferior courts” and that it would eventually receive the assignment to resolve approximately ninety percent of all Idaho’s case filings annually? Did they foresee that the Magistrate Division would eventually become the trial court to handle all of Idaho’s family law cases? The Magistrate Judges handle not only divorce and related proceedings, but also Child Protective Act cases, terminations of parental rights, adoptions, guardianship, and conservatorship proceedings.

Did they realize that someday, the Magistrate Division would be the gateway for almost all criminal cases filed in Idaho? With the exception of those cases that involve felony indictments handed down by a grand jury, every felony, misdemeanor, and infraction case commences in the Magistrate Division.  The jurisdiction of the Magistrate Division has grown and Magistrate Judges are part of a well-trained corps of Idaho judges deciding significant issues on a daily basis.

            One has to wonder if the champions of court reform viewed the newly created position of Magistrate Judge as a profession for many of the judges appointed to serve in the Magistrate Division.  Service in the Magistrate Division has become a final career choice for many talented jurists, some of whom remained in office for decades and eventually retired as Magistrate Judges.  It is fair to say that the majority have made the position of Magistrate Judge the final stop in their legal careers.  In fact, some Magistrate Judges have served in excess of 30 years on the bench, including the Honorable Mark Riddoch who continues to serve Bonneville County after 37 years.  Many Magistrate Judges have said that they truly believe they would not enjoy another judicial position as well or as much and most have found great satisfaction in service to their local communities.

Notable Idaho Magistrates

The Magistrate Division also boasts an impressive list of alumni. Five Idaho Supreme Court Justices and former Justices served their local communities as Magistrate Judges.  Two Idaho Court of Appeals Judges have also served as Magistrate Judges. In addition, dozens of Magistrate Judges have transitioned from the Magistrate Division to positions as District Judges[TF1] .

            Our outgoing Chief Justice Roger J. Burdick started his long and successful judicial career in 1981 as a Magistrate Judge in Jerome County.  The first woman appointed to serve on the Idaho Supreme Court, former Chief Justice Linda Copple Trout began her judicial career as a Magistrate Judge in Nez Perce County.  One of the first magistrate judges, former Chief Justice Gerald Schroeder, began his long judicial career in 1971 when his position as a probate court judge was absorbed into the Magistrate Division by court reform.  His long judicial career as a Magistrate Judge, District Judge, and as a Justice has spanned five decades as he continues to serve as a Senior Judge for the Idaho Supreme Court.

Former Chief Justice Daniel T. Eismann started a nine-year appointment as a Magistrate Judge in Owyhee County in 1986.  He transitioned to a District Judge position in 1995 and in 2000 he was elected to the Idaho Supreme Court where he served 17 years.  The latest appointee to the Idaho Supreme Court who served as a Magistrate Judge was recently retired Justice Joel Horton.  Justice Horton served as a Magistrate Judge in Ada County from 1994 to 1996 and served on the Idaho Supreme Court for 11 years until he retired in 2018.

            In 1982, the Idaho Court of Appeals was born of legislative enactment.  Our two former Magistrate Judges who served on the Idaho Court of Appeals are the Honorable Roger Swanstrom and the Honorable John Melanson.  Judge Swanstrom served as one of the original Magistrate Judges from 1971 to 1973 after which he was appointed as a district judge for the Second District.  Judge Swanstrom again took part in opening a new branch of the Idaho judiciary serving as one of the first three appointed members of the Court of Appeals from 1982 to1993. Judge Melanson served as a Magistrate Judge in Minidoka County from 2000 to 2009 and served the Court of Appeals from 2009 to 2017 serving as chief judge from 2015 to 2017.

Helping Modernize Idaho’s Justice System

As the Idaho court system has grown and evolved Magistrate Judges have contributed at almost all levels to assist the Idaho Supreme Court’s mission to administer a more modern justice throughout the state.  The drug courts, or treatment courts are a prime example of a more modern justice. 

In 1999, Idaho’s first drug court was started by former Chief Justice Eismann while he was serving as a District Judge in Ada County.  In the years that followed, all seven of Idaho’s judicial districts established their own treatment courts.  Idaho has since come to rely on treatment courts as an economic alternative to incarceration and a means by which the courts hold mentally ill and chemically dependent Defendants accountable for their crimes while providing them treatment in the community. While felony offenders most often comprise the treatment court rosters, many Magistrate Judges have served and continue to serve as treatment court judges delivering team-based drug, alcohol, and mental health treatment and services to criminal justice involved persons in their communities.

Magistrate Judges have taken seats at the table in both the administration of the Court and on the Idaho Judicial Council.  Three of the four elected officers of the Magistrate Judges’ Association regularly participate as voting members of the Administrative Conference of the Courts.  The Administrative Conference generally meets four times a year with “the responsibility [as members of] the Administrative Conference collectively, and … individually to make decisions in such a manner as to promote the effective administration of justice throughout the state of Idaho…”[ii]  One Magistrate Judge serves as a non-voting member of the Idaho Judicial Council.  The Idaho Judicial Council’s mission among other things, is to act pursuant to Constitutional and statutory authority to safeguard the integrity of Idaho’s entire judicial system, and to “administer the judicial vacancy, judicial discipline, and judicial incapacity system” pursuant to its rules.[iii]

Magistrate Judges also continue to serve in concert with the Idaho Legislature and departments of state government. For the past several years the Magistrate Judges’ Association has delivered informational presentations to the Idaho Senate Judiciary and Rules and the Idaho House of Representatives’ Judiciary and Rules Committees early in the Legislative Session.  Magistrate Judges interface almost daily with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare in matters involving child protection.  Magistrate Judges like the Honorable Bryan Murray and the Honorable John Varin have help shaped more modern legislation in juvenile law and juvenile corrections working closely with the Idaho Legislature and the Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections. 

Magistrate Judges have been and are deeply involved in judicial education and work tirelessly as members of numerous committees for the Administrative Office of the Courts. Magistrate Judges participate fully in helping the Court develop better rules of procedure.  For example, the Idaho Family Law Rules of Procedure were the product of the hands of many persons, Magistrate Judges, lawyers, and others, but at the point of the spear of this effort were two recently retired Magistrate Judges, the Honorable Russ Comstock and the Honorable David Day. 

The Idaho State Bar also enjoys the benefit of volunteer service from many Magistrate Judges in various capacities, including but not limited to committee work and continuing legal education.  In fact, the Magistrate Division recently provided leadership to the Idaho State Bar as the Honorable Michael Oths served three years as the first Magistrate Judge elected as an Idaho State Bar Commissioner.


The idea of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Magistrate Division has been about four years in the making.  We first vetted the idea of celebrating our 50th anniversary with the members of the Magistrate Judges Association and received nothing but positive response and support.  We shared the idea with the Administrative Conference, the Administrative Office of the Court, and the Justices and received equally positive responses and offers of support. The next three years passed quickly and some of the original ideas we kicked around are no longer possible due to the outbreak of COVID-19 in our country and our state.  However, a big push forward happened during the last several months with new ideas and renewed enthusiasm and now, we celebrate.

I would like to thank all who encouraged the Magistrate Judges Association to bring this celebration forward and all of those who contributed their support time and effort to mark this anniversary.  Idaho Magistrate Judges, past and present, are a proud bunch.  They should be.  I would also like to thank all of the Magistrate Judges who mentored me along the way while I spent a truly enjoyable 13 years as a Magistrate Judge.  Happy Anniversary to my friends and colleagues.  The legacy you have built and continue to build deserves commemoration.

Hon. Rudolph E. “Rick” Carnaroli currently serves as a Sixth District Judge, appointed on January 5, 2018. He served as Sixth District Magistrate Judge, appointed October 1, 2004; co-founder and current Presiding Judge, Sixth District Veterans Court, 2012; Idaho Pro Bono Commission, 2008 to present; officer, Magistrate Judges’ Association, 2012-17; member of the Board of Commissioners of the Idaho State Bar, 2003-06; J.D. Willamette University, 1985; and B.A. Pacific University, 1980.

[i] Condensed from Justice for the Times, A Centennial History of the Idaho Courts, edited by Carl F. Bianci, Chapters 5, 6 and 7.

[ii] Rule 43a.(c) I.C.A.R. Administrative Conference.

[iii] Rule 1(a) and (b), Idaho Judicial Council Rules of Procedure.