Distinguished Jurist: Hon. Roger S. Burdick

By Lindsey M. Welfley

Justice Burdick was the first member of the bench I met when I started with the Bar a little over eight years ago. I had only been on the job for a month when I was ushered away to the Annual Meeting in Sun Valley (also my first work trip). I was fresh out of college and had stepped into the coolest world I could have imagined at the time.

After the Distinguished Lawyer & Jurist Award Dinner on the first night of the Annual Meeting, my boss at the time, Mahmood Sheikh, told me that if I’d like he’d introduce me to “all the right people to know.” After shaking several hands and perfecting how to introduce myself in a professional manner, I found myself getting ready to meet one of the justices of the Idaho Supreme Court. I had never been more intimidated in my life. Mahmood introduced me to Justice Roger S. Burdick after which we all had the most hilarious, lively, authentic conversation – with Justice Burdick feverishly inviting anyone within earshot to come join us at the table. Mahmood was correct; Justice Burdick was certainly the right person to know. I remember thinking to myself later that night, if these are the types of people who serve on our judiciary then we are truly in the best of hands.

That is a sentiment I still hold to be true here in Idaho. Year after year I get to interview members of the bench for the Distinguished Jurist Award and my confidence in our judiciary is renewed with each conversation – Justice Burdick is no exception.

Born in Boulder, Colorado but moving to Boise in his youth, Justice Roger S. Burdick has had the unique tenure of living out four separate legal careers – seven years in legal practice, 12 years as a Magistrate Judge in Jerome County, 10 years as a District Judge in the Fifth Judicial District, and 18 years as a Justice on the Idaho Supreme Court.

Photo of Burdick (right) being sworn in as a Magistrate Judge by Judge Theron Ward (left) on August 1, 1981. All photos courtesy of Roger Burdick.

After graduating from Boise High School, Burdick returned to Boulder to attend the University of Colorado during the “golden years of the ‘60s.” He received his Bachelor of Science in finance with a minor in geology and marketing in 1970. Upon graduation, Burdick made his way back to Boise for a job with the State of Idaho’s Department of Finance as a bank examiner. His decision to go to law school came about through a series of unconventional circumstances – disillusioned with the banking industry after observing some questionable conduct by management, Burdick was told he had 30 days to find a new job. Now with a wife, child, and no job, Burdick remembered he had recently taken the LSAT. His score came back high enough to make applications to law school. And so, he did.

Justice Burdick attended the University of Idaho College of Law in Moscow for what were “the most fun three years of [his] life. The friends you make in law school stay with you forever.” During his senior year, Burdick recalls listening to the late Lloyd Webb give a lecture that was so captivating he had to speak to the man. After following Webb to the snack area and introducing himself, Burdick praised the lecture as the best speech he had ever heard and asked to work with him. Burdick told Webb, “I’ll come down for an interview and if it doesn’t work out, I can at least get you a bid to paint your office.” Burdick graduated with his juris doctorate from the University of Idaho College of Law in 1974, interviewed for and got the job with Webb, Pike, Burton & Carlson, and moved to Twin Falls with his wife and first son.

Burdick loved every minute of his time in Lloyd Webb’s firm – right up until he got fired, for reasons he’s still not certain. This put him again back to square one, with a wife, child, and no job. After a call to Bill McCurdy who worked for Dave Leroy at the time, Burdick secured a job in Boise as a deputy prosecuting attorney for the Ada County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. “This was where I finally learned how to be a lawyer.” During this time, Burdick served as the Chief trial lawyer in charge of narcotics prosecutions.

Photo of Burdick (left) and his wife, Rachel, (right) showing off their catch of the day.

After his stint in Ada County, Burdick again relocated to the Magic Valley to take a job in Jerome. He got a call from Bill Hart to come work on a public defense contract for Jerome, Camas, Gooding, and Lincoln counties. From 1977 to 1980, Burdick did this public defense work while also holding a general practice. In 1980, Burdick was elected Prosecuting Attorney for Jerome County while continuing his general practice. One year later, in 1981, Burdick was appointed to the bench as a Magistrate Judge for Jerome County, where he served until 1993. Justice Burdick remembers his first day as a magistrate judge being one of deep significance. He kept a quote on his desk that said, “I want to feel today like I did the first day I felt in this job.” He recalls the wonder and importance of it being his guiding lights.

Justice Burdick’s presidency of the Magistrates Association from 1989 to 1991 aligned with a turning point for the judiciary; salaries were due for an increase and until then no magistrates had been welcomed onto the Judicial Council or the Administrative Conference. Justice Burdick and his colleagues on the Magistrates Association championed access to both of those avenues. From 1991 to 1993 Burdick served as the first magistrate judge on the Judicial Council and as an ex officio member for magistrate discipline. He distinctly remembers only being allowed to participate during certain portions of the meetings, sitting in the hallway and waiting to be called in. Burdick made sure that all his future replacements would have an unrestricted seat at the table.

Burdick considers his time spent on the Judicial Council his most important act of service to the profession. During this time, Burdick helped to amend the Judicial Code of Conduct twice and implement the first Idaho Judicial Council Rules of Civil Procedure. These procedural rules were a significant improvement for judges who have issues before the council. Before then the process was a bit informal.

Burdick kept his guiding lights – the wonder and importance of judicial service – at the top of his mind during his later appointment to the district bench in 1993. Burdick served as a Fifth District Judge, chambered in Twin Falls, from 1993 to 2003 – subsequently serving as Administrative Judge for the Fifth Judicial District from 2001 to 2003 and as Presiding Judge of the Snake River Basin Adjudication from 2000 to 2003.

Photo of Burdick biking back in the good ole’ days when he used to compete in triathlons and generally stay active.

Burdick recalls his time presiding over the Snake River Basin Adjudication (“SRBA”) as some of his most rewarding work. Prior to taking the caseload, Burdick had a deep interest in the matter and regularly attended all the seminars. When Justice Linda Trout called him to see if he’d take it, he happily obliged despite being told by nearly everyone that it would ruin his career. Burdick gave the best retort: “It’s easy to ride a draft horse, but it’s the wild ponies that build character.” This was a principle he held as truth throughout his tenure as a District Judge; whatever case nobody else wanted, he would take.

In 2003, Justice Burdick received his final judicial appointment as the 53rd Justice of the Idaho Supreme Court. During his time on the Supreme Court, Burdick chaired numerous committees and has been involved in a variety of court-related initiatives. He served two four-year terms as Chief Justice, as elected by his peers, from 2007 to 2011 and again from 2017 to 2021. During both terms as Chief Justice, he served as a delegate to the Conference of Chief Justices. Burdick oversaw the adoption of the new Idaho Judicial Council Rules of Civil Procedure and the revised Idaho Code of Judicial Conduct, both approved in 2016. He has also spent the majority of his career on the bench serving as chair for the Idaho Criminal Rules Committee.

Justice Burdick says he’ll never forget walking into the Supreme Court building for the first time as a justice – “I still get goosebumps every time I talk about it.” He reminisces on the last 18 years fondly, stating, “I am still so touched that I had that opportunity. The outpouring of gratitude for being on the bench as a justice has just been overwhelming.”

Burdick, now retired, still serves as a senior justice, taking a minimal caseload as needed. When he is not donning the robe, he and his wife, Rachel, enjoy a lot of gardening, fishing for salmon (but certainly not fly fishing), deer hunting, and reading – though Burdick jokes, “Never for content. I’ve been reading for content for decades and I’m tired of it.” He used to be an avid triathlete, competing in several triathlons during his younger years. Burdick has two sons; Phillip, who lives in Sitka, Alaska, has worked in the education system for the majority of his career, and Benjamin, who lives in Boise, runs the Boise Contemporary Theatre. Between them, Rachel and Roger have eight grandchildren spanning ages 21 to six, who keep them busy.

Burdick states, “I have had a career I could have never dreamed of. I would have never had it without the support of others. Professionally, thank you to the overworked, underpaid clerks of the Court who are the scaffolding all judges depend upon. They are too numerous to mention, but never forgotten. I would have never accomplished my work on the district or appellate court without my brilliant, hard-working law clerks who enriched my legal work, but more importantly my personal life.” “And lastly, but always first, my family. I gathered and still get inspiration from my boys as I watch how hard they have worked to succeed in their many endeavors and now in fatherhood. Nothing would have gotten done without the support of my Jerome family and now Rachel. Thanks to all.”

Lindsey M. Welfley is the Communications Director of the Idaho State Bar, overseeing all communications-related initiatives of both the Idaho State Bar and the Idaho Law Foundation, Inc. She graduated from Grand Canyon University with her undergraduate degree in history in 2015 and has been employed with the Idaho State Bar ever since. Lindsey has been the Communications Director since March 2019.