Idaho Supreme Court Justice Joel Horton, who finds himself in an election campaign this spring, says he won’t conduct a negative campaign, which is something he says his opponent has been doing.
“As a challenger, he needs to distinguish himself,” Horton said in an interview Friday in Ketchum, referring to Boise attorney William Breck Seiniger Jr., who is running against Horton in a contest that will be decided in the May 20 Idaho primary election. “But this is a campaign and he has to come up with something, but I’m not going to run a negative campaign.”
Horton denied Seiniger’s claims that he is too closely tied to big business in Idaho, in particular the J.R. Simplot Co. However, he declined to criticize Seiniger, other than to say his opponent has “taken a few things out of context that represents a flat misunderstanding of how the court works.”
“If I were to run a negative campaign, it would send the wrong message to the public—that judges are nothing but politicians,” Horton said. “A negative campaign is not consistent with how judges ought to conduct themselves.”
Horton said that judges, especially Supreme Court justices, need to be independent of outside influences and make rulings based only upon the law.
“I don’t think the justices of the Supreme Court ought to be representing anybody,” he said. “Our job is to try to get the law right. The five of us have worked hard to get the law right, not to decide cases on who we think ought to win, but on the basis of the law.”
Horton said one of the biggest responsibilities of the Supreme Court is to ascertain the intent of legislation, since it’s not uncommon for statutes to contain ambiguities.
“Sometimes we spend a lot of time trying to figure out what the heck did they mean when they wrote this,” he said. “A large part of it is interpretation of the law as it is written. If it’s really clear, it’s not that difficult.”
Horton is an Idaho native, born in Nampa, and a graduate of the University of Idaho College of Law. He served on the Idaho Supreme Court since 2007, when he was appointed to the bench by Gov. Butch Otter. Prior to that, he served as an Idaho 4th Judicial District judge in Ada and Elmore counties, a magistrate judge in Ada County and a deputy state attorney general. He has also served as a deputy prosecuting attorney in Twin Falls and Ada counties.
This is the second time he has had to campaign to retain his Supreme Court position. In 2008, he narrowly defeated former Idaho 2nd Judicial District Judge John Bradbury.
Horton said he’ll be busy campaigning until the May 20 election, but will also find time for his high court duties, which he referred to as his “day job.”
“Judges ought to be accountable to the public,” he said. “I’d hate to see a system where the public doesn’t have a say in the justice system.”
Horton said it’s appropriate in court that he be called “Justice Horton,” but outside of court he prefers to be called just “Joel.” However, he said his favorite name is “Coach Joel.”
The Coach Joel name refers to the fact that he has served as a volunteer for the past 15 years at Hope House in Marsing. At Hope House, a statewide center and program for disadvantaged youth, Horton has served as a coach for softball, basketball and football. Also for Hope House, Horton has organized and funded annual raft trips for the students.
Whitewater rafting is one of Horton’s favorite things to do when not volunteering, campaigning or serving on the bench. He also enjoys bass fishing, or what he called “getting out on the river and dunking a line.”
He and his wife also own a vacation cabin north of Boise.
“It’s really funny because my wife’s a magistrate judge and our cabin is known as the place where the lady judge lives.”
The lack of notoriety at the cabin is consistent with what the public generally knows about who serves on the Idaho Supreme Court, Horton said.
“We’re not high profile,” he said. “If you we to go out on the street and ask who are the Supreme Court justices, the majority of the public would not know. In some ways, it’s not understandable, because of the importance of the role we have.
“The reality is that what we do affects every citizen in Idaho.”