Opportunity and hard work often go hand in hand. It's a concept not lost on Roger Burdick, new Chief Justice of the Idaho Supreme Court, and one he has frequently capitalized on.
Burdick, who has been on the Supreme Court since 2003 and took the oath as chief justice on Aug. 9, has held myriad positions within Idaho's judiciary. He said a long career with risk-taking elements has given him wide perspectives on both the judicial system and human interaction, and has helped shape his philosophy that a lot of diligence and a little luck can present prospects that a person might have at one time deemed unattainable.
Burdick discussed his career, the impacts he's had on others and the impacts others have had on him with the Idaho Mountain Express last week.
"I have a saying—it's the wild ponies that build character," he said. "It's easy to ride a draft horse, but not a wild pony. Any time that nobody else wanted a case, I gladly took it."
That was part of the reason he took on the Snake River Basin Adjudication, a technically complex and politically tricky lawsuit created by statute to inventory all surface water and groundwater rights in the stream system.
"There wasn't one person who said I should do it," he recalled. But, "I figured that was the wildest pony."
After an initial foray into the world of finance as a young adult, Burdick reviewed then redirected his career.
Building on his finance degree from the University of Colorado, he graduated from the University of Idaho School of Law in 1974.
He was a prosecutor in two counties and a public defender in four, and had his own general law practice.
Burdick has spent 30 years in the Idaho judiciary, including serving as a magistrate judge in Jerome County, a district judge in Twin Falls County, administrative judge for the Fifth Judicial District and the judge overseeing the Snake River Basin Adjudication.
While many would see this as a natural kind of career progression, Burdick seems both delighted and slightly taken aback.
"I am so lucky to be here, you have no idea," he said. "I'm just so lucky."
Learn some, and then some more
Burdick's breadth of experience not only helped him handle challenges, but has served as a stepladder to more opportunity.
"If you're a prosecutor, be a defender for a while," he said. "If you're a defender, be a prosecutor for a while. If you're a plaintiff's lawyer, take some defense cases. And then work as hard as you can every day, tell everyone the unvarnished truth, and that will make your reputation."
Burdick earned a good reputation as a trial judge. Trial judges make all the decisions in their courtrooms, he said, and therefore become very independent. On the Supreme Court, he had to adapt to a group approach.
"In an appellate court, you have to really learn how to trust some other justices and judges," he said. "In the best sense, it should be a team effort."
Being part of a team in any circumstance is an opportunity to learn.
"You take away a little bit of everything from different judges," he said.
That give and take is enhanced when judges have a good working relationship, he said.
"I wish people understood how lucky Idaho is to have the judiciary, top to bottom, that they do," he said. "For the most part, we have competent justices who try to work real hard to do the right thing."
Rewards of the job
The pressure on judges can be intense, but the rewards are just as great.
"It's probably the most wonderful thing to have somebody come up to you, who you don't know, and have them say, 'You saved my life in juvenile court.' That's the best thing that could happen," he said. "That's as good as it gets."
Compassion may not be a requirement for a judge, but it's a trait that Burdick brings to his job.
"I have great empathy for the people that come before the courts," he said. "If you're in a judicial position you sometimes can think, well, the whole world is bad, rather than think, these are individuals who are going through a rough patch today. You don't know what they were before or what they will be afterwards. Your job is to treat them with respect and treat them the same as everybody else. That's what I bring, and I think everyone on this court (brings)."
Burdick himself has felt the impact of positive influence and understanding.
"I could have taken a couple of wrong turns as a young man," he said. "I think we all have those informal mentors who probably don't even know what they're saying or how important it is to you at that point in your life, but you remember them all your life."
Everyone is in a position to have an impact on a child, he said.
"I think each of us can save a kid if we try," he said.
Rebecca Meany: firstname.lastname@example.org