Idaho gets new chief federal judge — in Rhode Island

Idaho’s struggle to address booming caseloads got a boost last month when Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson introduced a bill to add a third U.S. district judge. But with a divided Congress and fiscal woes, passage is a long shot.

As a point of pride, however, some consolation comes this week from tiny Rhode Island, where Capital High School graduate William E. Smith became the new chief judge of the U.S. District Court.

Smith began his seven-year term as chief judge Sunday. He was appointed to the bench in 2002 by President George W. Bush. He has bachelor’s and law degrees from Georgetown University.


Smith attended St. Joseph’s School in Boise and is the son of the late 4th District Judge W.E. Smith, who served more than three decades as a probate and state court judge in Ada County. Smith’s mother, Eileen Coughlin Smith, 93, lives in Boise.

Judge Smith is part of a family of legal beagles: Brother Stephen is an attorney at Hawley Troxell in Boise; brother Tom is a law professor at the University of San Diego; sister Trish Cassell is a senior district attorney in Salt Lake County, Utah.

Judge Smith leads a Rhode Island bench with four U.S. District judges: himself, Mary Lisi, John McConnell and Ronald Lagueux.

By contrast, Idaho has just two U.S. district judges, B. Lynn Winmill and Ed Lodge.

Rhode Island’s population is 1.1 million; Idaho has 1.6 million souls. Rhode Island, the nation’s smallest state, covers 1,545 square miles; Idaho, the 14th largest, has 83,570 square miles.

Idaho’s proportion of federal lands — which generate a considerable number of cases with federal jurisdiction — is also a bit larger than Rhode Island. About 62 percent of Idaho is in U.S. ownership; in Rhode Island the figure is 0.4 percent.



Dan Popkey came to Idaho in 1984 to work as a police reporter. Since 1987, he has covered politics and has reported on 25 sessions of the Legislature. Dan has a bachelor's in political science from Santa Clara University and a master's in journalism from Columbia University. He was a Congressional Fellow of the American Political Science Association and a Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan. A former page in the U.S. House of Representatives, he graduated Capitol Page High School in 1976. In 2007, he led the Statesman’s coverage of the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news. In 2003, he won the Ted M. Natt First Amendment award from the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Association for coverage of University Place, the University of Idaho’s troubled real estate development in Boise. Dan helped start the community reading project "Big Read." He has two children in college and lives on the Boise Bench with an old gray cat.

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