Friday, April 3, 2009

Judge stays busy, despite rash of DQs

Elgee’s caseload remains comparable to other judges

Express Staff Writer

Despite a recent rash of disqualifications against him on criminal cases in Blaine County, Judge Robert J. Elgee continues to have a caseload comparable to other judges within the 5th Judicial District.

"For every case that I get disqualified on, the administrative district judge assigns me other cases, both civil and criminal, in other counties," Elgee wrote in an e-mail to the Idaho Mountain Express. "It is not on a one-for-one basis, but all of the judges trade cases around and travel so the case assignments stay fairly even."

Information provided by the 5th Judicial District states that Elgee, Blaine County's resident district court judge, currently has 174 cases. Elgee had a total caseload in 2008 of 237 cases.

Those numbers don't include the cases Elgee handles through Blaine County Drug Court, which is convened every Thursday afternoon in his courtroom for case review. Ten people are enrolled in drug court, and three new cases are headed that way. The drug court recently graduated four people who had met the requirements to free themselves of drugs or alcohol.

Elgee's caseload came into question in light of blanket disqualifications filed against him since last November on criminal cases in Blaine County. Prosecuting Attorney Jim Thomas has disqualified Elgee on some 20 cases since then. Thomas has declined to state a reason, but he is not required to do so under Idaho judiciary rules, which allow a prosecutor or defense attorney to disqualify one district court judge per case "without cause."

Twin Falls Prosecuting Attorney Grant Loebs has also filed blanket disqualifications against Elgee since November, but since Elgee is only an "alternate judge" in that county the disqualifications have had little or no impact on his caseload.

In his e-mail, Elgee described the Twin Falls disqualifications as "merely ceremonial."

The latest numbers available from the 5th Judicial District show that Elgee was assigned 29 civil cases, 27 in Blaine County and two in Twin Falls County, in the first two months of 2009. He was also assigned 13 criminal cases, nine in Blaine County and four in Camas County, during the same period.

Disqualification motions have been filed by Thomas' office on all nine of the Blaine County criminal cases, but even when Elgee removes himself as presiding judge, he still needs to stay familiar with the cases to handle the arraignments, change-of-plea hearings and other proceedings as allowed by Idaho Judiciary rules. The rules, however, require that the presiding judge in a case oversee and rule on evidentiary motions, sentencings and trials.

Linda Wright, 5th Judicial District trial court administrator, said Elgee's caseload is within 10 to 15 cases of other district judges in counties with populations comparable to Blaine County's.

The Idaho Supreme Court is also keeping Elgee busy by assigning him to criminal trials in Ada County. He worked on the bench in that county from Jan. 12-16 and March 23-27, and is assigned to Ada County for the week of May 18-22.

Most of the cases handled by Elgee are civil rather than criminal.

"I have civil trials scheduled almost every week, unless I am on vacation, through April of 2010," Elgee wrote. "While the criminal cases often take more time in court, the civil cases consume most of the time out of court.

"I currently have five civil cases under advisement. I have to write a written decision in each one. I am far from caught up. I worked Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights of this week and will be working tonight as well."

Terry Smith:

One DQ motion falls short

Fifth District Court Judge Robert J. Elgee has declined to disqualify himself from a Blaine County drug case because the prosecuting attorney's filed a motion to disqualify him after the legally required deadline.

"I'm not surprised by the ruling," defense attorney Douglas Werth said Thursday. "The law is pretty clear, and the motion to disqualify was late."

Elgee denied on Wednesday a disqualification motion filed by the Blaine County Prosecuting Attorney's Office in the case against 27-year-old Benjamin C. Wagstaff, who is charged in a grand jury indictment with three felony counts of delivery of methamphetamine or possession of the drug with intent to deliver.

Wagstaff is one of four men arrested on drug dealing charges in February by the Blaine County Narcotics Team. The prosecuting attorney's office disqualified Elgee on the other three cases shortly after the men were indicted, but apparently missed Wagstaff.

Prosecuting Attorney Jim Thomas filed his motion to disqualify Elgee late Monday afternoon, but the filing was 18 days after his office was officially notified that the case was assigned to district court with Elgee as the presiding judge. Idaho Judiciary rules require that motions to disqualify "without cause," be filed within 14 days of such notification.

"Due to some confusion on Wagstaff's arraignment date, we simply missed the deadline in which to file for disqualification," Thomas said Thursday. "We will proceed as in any other criminal case at this point."

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