BOISE — Lawyers for both sides in the lawsuit between state Treasurer Julie Ellsworth and House Speaker Scott Bedke faced off before the Idaho Supreme Court Wednesday, via Zoom, for oral arguments in Ellsworth’s appeal of a district court ruling that said the Legislature has the legal right to boot her offices out of the Capitol’s 1st floor to make way for legislative offices.
The case so far has run up more than $668,000 in combined legal bills; taxpayers are footing the bill for the private attorneys representing both sides in the case.
Ellsworth contended that a deal between then-Gov. Butch Otter and the Legislature in 2007 over the remodeling and expansion of the Capitol guaranteed the state treasurer the option to keep offices in the Capitol where they’ve historically been located, including a historic vault. But the district court ruled that a state law first passed in 1998 and amended in 2007 clearly gives control over first-floor office space in the Capitol to the Legislature, with its presiding officers allocating the space.
Ellsworth appealed to the Idaho Supreme Court, contending in part that the matter was a “political question” that shouldn’t be decided in court, and in part that Bedke and then-Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill needed a vote of the Legislature to evict her.
Attorney B. Newal Squyres of Holland & Hart, representing Bedke and Hill, told the court Wednesday, “There’s nothing in the statute about a vote.”
Attorney Tim Hopkins, representing Ellsworth, argued that determining the use of the first-floor space in this case is a weightier decision than the mere assigning of legislative offices and related spaces, which the House speaker and Senate president pro-tem have handled by law for the past 22 years.
“This is different. This is a determination of the space that historically has been occupied by the treasurer of the state of Idaho since the Capitol came to be in 1905, determining whether she can continue to enjoy the dignity of her office and the responsibilities of her office in the iconic structure that represents the government of the state of Idaho,” he told the justices. “This is not a break room for the legislative aides. This is the displacement of a constitutional officer who has been in this space historically from the beginning.”
Justice Greg Moeller noted that the Supreme Court itself used to be located in the Capitol as well. He asked Squyres, “About this being merely a political question. … Right now two of our co-equal branches of government in the state, the legislative and the executive, live in that house. Why should we be getting in the midst of some internecine fight between them?”
Squyres responded, “All that’s being asked of this court is to interpret a statute. That’s the authority of this court. The leadership attempted to negotiate and were rebuffed. That’s why we’re here. … It’s a rule-of-law question.”
In a legal brief submitted to the court, Squyres wrote that the treasurer has offered “shifting arguments” for her position throughout the case, and that the Supreme Court has “a duty to declare the law.”
Bedke said after the arguments, “I think that our attorneys did a great job in representing our position. … There was certainly not a lot of room for interpretation in the district court’s decision.”
Ellsworth said, “I watched the arguments, I’m pleased that it had a hearing in front of the Supreme Court, and we’ll just wait to hear what their decision is.”
At the close of Wednesday’s arguments, Chief Justice Richard Bevan announced that the court is now taking the case under advisement, and “a decision will issue.” Typically, it takes weeks or months before the court issues its written decisions.
As of September, Ellsworth’s office had spent $205,488 on legal costs in the case with former Idaho Attorney General David Leroy representing it; since then, the office has run up another $90,373 in legal bills for Hopkin’s representation on appeal, according to the state Controller’s “Transparent Idaho” website. That brings the total on that side to $295,861.
The Legislature had spent $313,914 on legal fees for the case as of Aug. 31; since then, it’s run up another $58,233 in legal bills on appeal, for a current total on the Legislature’s side of $372,147.