Legislator seeks seat on state high court

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Curt McKenzie

COEUR d’ALENE — Voters considering the vacancy on the Idaho Supreme Court this November must answer a fairly significant question.

Is a legislative track record — an advance look at a person’s views on key issues — a help or a hindrance for a potential justice?

Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, makes the case that his experience allows citizens to understand his values, and thus his seven terms as a senator are a distinct advantage.

“People can see me as the person I am, and what I believe, because it’s right there (on his career voting record),” McKenzie said Thursday afternoon in a meeting with The Press editorial board.

McKenzie was touring the northern parts of the state in his push to defeat Robyn Brody, a private attorney from Rupert.

There are several unusual twists to McKenzie’s candidacy beyond his claim that a sitting legislator is uniquely qualified for the court.

For one thing, McKenzie is tackling what is considered a nonpartisan role strictly as a Republican, although he attempted to step away from that designation Thursday.

“I really don’t feel I’m running as a Republican,” he said. “Yes, I’ve attended quite a few Republican events and been endorsed by Republican legislators — I’m proud of that — but I’ve also met with Democrats.”

The partisanship issue is particularly sticky because McKenzie has not wavered from party policy as chairman of the Senate State Affairs Committee.

During a previous interview in which he was asked about killing a bill that would raise the minimum wage, McKenzie replied: “I don’t see this as an issue that my party, the Republican Party, generally advances. My district has been consistently Republican … for a long time.”

Thus voters will have to decide whether a partisan lawmaker can be an effective, nonpartisan jurist.

“I have no doubt that I could take on cases fairly,” McKenzie said Thursday. “I certainly understand the separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches. That’s a key to our form of government, and I have the background to understand it.”

To that end, McKenzie said, in his career as an attorney he has been both a prosecutor and a defense attorney.

“I think that’s a critical thing,” he said. “To see the law from both sides gives me insights that you can’t get by simply being an advocate.”

McKenzie noted if he were going to be labeled, it would be as a “strict Constitutional textualist” in the manner of his legal hero, the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

“This goes back to the separation of powers,” McKenzie said. “I don’t believe in an activist court that might be making law instead of ruling on existing law.

“Changing laws belongs to the people.”

McKenzie has had a colorful, and not altogether pleasant, run as a legislator — including disputes over mileage claims (money he ultimately returned), a second-home compensation, and a bizarre situation in which his ex-wife, Renee, fell in love with a convicted murderer, Lance Wood, and subsequently married him.

Renee McKenzie Wood filed a $50 million lawsuit against the state following her exchanges with Wood while he was in prison, claiming the Department of Corrections interfered with their work on prison reform — and ironically, that it damaged her husband’s personal and Senate reputation.

McKenzie would not discuss anything to do with his former wife — a stance he has maintained since their divorce in late 2013 — but when challenged about whether the affair could affect his role on the Supreme Court, he conceded that if a specific case involving the prison system came before the court, he would likely have to recuse himself.

“Nothing like that is very likely,” McKenzie said. “Voters can judge my record and see the kind of person I am: a believer in individual rights, strong defender of the Second Amendment, right to life and other issues important to the people of Idaho.”

McKenzie also made a point on which even his opponent might agree.

“An actual open race for a Supreme Court seat is very rare in Idaho,” he said. “I don’t believe we’ve had one in nearly 30 years.

“So this is the biggest statewide race. Picking a justice for a five-person court is the biggest game in town.”

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