POCATELLO — What he hoped to convey is that no one can know just what they are capable of until tapped for the task.
How he tried to convey that idea was by using his own personal story of a small-town attorney who now serves as part of a court that has among the highest levels of impact in the nation.
Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge N. Randy Smith talked about the possibility that “ordinary people have to get involved in bigger things,” during a luncheon meeting of the Gate City Rotary Club on Tuesday at the Pocatello Clarion Inn.
Smith began his talk by reminding those in attendance that he was once a member of the Gate City Rotary Club, a decision he made while still an attorney in Pocatello. He said that no one, not even he, could have guessed during those days that he would eventually serve as a district judge in Bannock County and later on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
To give the Rotary members an understanding of just what was being asked of their longtime friend and former fellow Rotary member, Smith explained a bit about what the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals does, complete with statistics.
“The 9th Circuit, this last year, had 12,684 filings,” Smith said, adding that it was a relatively normal year for appeals to that court. “We are 22 percent of all the appeals in the United States. We disposed of 5 percent more appeals than were given to us.”
To give it some perspective, he said, the U.S. Supreme Court heard just 80 appeals. What that means is that in nearly every one of the 12,684 appeals filed with it, the 9th Circuit had the final word, and that it had the final word in a little more than one out of every five cases appealed to a U.S. Circuit Court.
“You should know that the Ninth Circuit has the final say in that many appeals,” he said. “The 9th Circuit is the biggest circuit (court) in the nation.”
The 9th Circuit includes Idaho, Alaska, Montana, Nevada, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Hawaii, California and all applicable Pacific Islands.
Smith further explained that there are 44 judges who work in the Ninth Circuit, but only 26 of those are continuously working a full case load. The others, he said, are senior judges. He also said very few of those seats are filled by judges from outside California.
When a case is appealed to the 9th Circuit, it is typically heard by a panel of three judges, who then make a decision based on the facts presented.
But when one of the parties is not satisfied with the decision of the three-judge panel, they can ask that the judges consider hearing the case again, “en banc.” That “en banc” hearing, if approved, would be in front of 11 9th Circuit judges.
“In the past year, this yahoo sat on 60 percent of the en banc cases and wrote opinions in a major portion of those cases,” Smith said, adding that he never believed he would one day be in such a position.
Smith received his law degree in 1977 and went to work for the J.R. Simplot Co., where he stayed until joining the law firm Merrill & Merrill in 1982. He became a partner there in 1985 and was still at the firm when, in 1995, he was appointed to serve as a district judge in Idaho’s Sixth Judicial District in Bannock County. Ten years later it was then-U.S. President George W. Bush who nominated Smith to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals late in 2005. That first nomination stalled when two California senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, argued that an Idahoan had been nominated to fill a seat historically held by a Californian. But Bush submitted Smith’s name again early in 2007 when another opening arose, and in February of that year, Smith was unanimously confirmed by a vote of 94-0.
Outside of the gravity of responsibility to which he has been given in his current role, Smith said he has also learned a lot about his old job, that of a district-level judge, in the big scheme of things.
“I don’t know that I really understood that the judge at the local level has so much authority in certain instances,” Smith said, adding that much trust is placed in the decisions made at the local level when looking at appeals in the 9th Circuit.
He said his time in the 9th Circuit has also helped him to realize that the Gem State has some pretty good people in the legal community.
“In Idaho, you have a great judicial system,” he said. “On the whole, it works as well or better than any other system in the Ninth Circuit. In my book, as well or better than any other system in the United States.”