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citydesk (3/18/09)

John Roberts does Boise


A longer version of this story appears on the citydesk.

Restricted speech

The full ballroom at the Boise Centre on the Grove, usually a pedestrian affair, was austerely appointed in ceiling to floor black cloth on Thursday night. The University of Idaho College of Law, celebrating its first centennial, projected a dramatic pair of school logos on the black backdrops. A long, raised dais loomed over the front of the hall, lined north to south with chairs and referred to as the Head Table.

The large crowd of fresh-faced U of I alumni, left- and right-leaning Boise lawyers and state dignitaries picked at their fruit course while behind the stage an elite group of Idaho politicos mingled in The Perch room with John G. Roberts, U.S. Supreme Court chief justice, sans robes.

The beslinged governor, C. L. "Butch" Otter (recovering from a calf roping injury) introduced the boyish Roberts to Idaho's portly Secretary of State, one Ben Ysursa.

"I know that name," Roberts responded, according to Ysursa. (Reporters were not allowed anywhere near the Chief.) Ysursa, of Basque heritage, does not have a very common family name.

About two weeks prior, Roberts had handed down a bittersweet victory to the State of Idaho in the case of Ysursa v. Pocatello Education Association et al.

"We won the case, but we lost most of the law," Ysursa commented after the gala, heading across Boise's Grove Plaza.

Roberts ruled that the state can prohibit school districts, fire departments and other political subdivisions from taking contributions to union political funds directly out of public employees' paychecks.

Roberts' speech in Boise, a prelude to a Friday lecture at the law school in Moscow, for which he was paid an $11,500 honorarium, did not reference the decision. The nation's top jurist spoke for about seven minutes, opening with a lawyer joke about not telling lawyer jokes and recounting the journey to the American West for this Western audience: explorers, trappers, miners, ranchers and farmers.

"Each of these groups made their initial appearance without the assistance of counsel, but the lawyers were, of course, not far behind," Roberts intoned.

He tipped his hat to federalism, invoking New Deal-era Justice Louis Brandeis' notion of states as laboratories for experimentation, and gave a nod to Western American jurisprudence, which informs his conservative rulings on natural resources.

"My court's cases recognize, the pioneers who were drawn to these lands found a climate and topography radically different from that east of the 100th meridian," he said.

College of Law Dean Donald L. Burnett Jr., perhaps subconsciously, spoke to the difference between Roberts' jurisprudence and that of the more scholarly justices.

Idaho's law community gathered that Thursday night, Burnett said, as "a great manifestation of the impulse for justice, whether it's the common sense justice described by the chief justice and Idaho's history, or the scholarly justice that the Supreme Court is charged to produce for us."

Hundreds of common sense lawyers, arm in arm with their dates, flooded out into the twilight.

—Nathaniel Hoffman

war in Iraq

U.S. CASUALTIES: As of Tuesday, March 17, 2009, 4,260 U.S. service members (including 31 Idahoans) have died since the war in Iraq began in March 2003: 3,424 in combat and 836 from non-combat-related incidents and accidents. Injured service members total 31,131. In the last week, three U.S. soldiers died.

Since President Barack Obama was inaugurated on Jan. 20, 31 soldiers have died.

Source: U.S. Dept. of Defense

IRAQI CIVILIAN DEATHS: Estimated between 91,121 and 99,500.


COST OF IRAQ WAR: $605,539,591,125