A woman who has already been banned from filing frivolous lawsuits in several state and federal courts is challenging a new Idaho law designed to staunch so-called vexatious litigation.
Holli Lundahl Telford has already been designated a vexatious litigant by the states of Utah, California, Montana, Idaho’s federal court, the 9th and 10th U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court, according to court records.
In 2011, a judge in eastern Idaho made the same call – and again, Telford is fighting the designation. But this time she’s challenging a rule that’s never been tested by the Idaho Supreme Court, one designed to help judges walk the line between protecting a person’s right to the courts while keeping them from creating a logjam of frivolous court filings.
“The upshot of this appeal is an attack on Idaho Court Administrative Rule 59,” Telford told the Idaho Supreme Court justices during arguments earlier this month, with all the aplomb of someone well-versed in courtroom procedure. “There were seven issues presented in the appeal: First, failure to disqualify without cause …”
Administrative Rule 59 was adopted in April 2011, just a few months before 6th District Judge David Nye labeled Telford as a vexatious litigator. But nuisance lawsuits are not an uncommon problem for the court system, and judges have – albeit rarely – restricted the access afforded some residents since at least the early 1980s. The rule was created to spell out the process of making that designation.
“It’s not a matter of these actions being annoying or inconvenient to the court. It’s the problem of really using the court’s resources in such a way that it impairs the ability to move other cases along so other people can get their cases decided in a timely fashion,” said Michael Henderson, legal counsel for the Idaho Supreme Court. “It’s just a matter of protecting other people’s access to the courts, so the courts aren’t tied up with just one person’s matter.”
It’s not something to take lightly, said Ritchie Eppink, senior legal counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union-Idaho.
“Obviously the right to bring our grievances before impartial courts is fundamental to our idea of government and to our idea of law and justice. Any limit on anyone’s ability to access their courts is something to be taken very seriously,” Eppink said. “That has to be balanced with the courts ability to manage cases in a way that can allow speedy access to justice for everyone. If a court is going to limit a particular individual’s access there needs to be significant procedural protections to ensure that that is truly justified.”
In rural areas, it doesn’t take much to strain the court system. Teton County had to hire an additional part-time court worker largely because the constant stream of court filings from just one person overwhelmed the courthouse staff, said Phyllis Hansen, the Teton County Court Supervisor.
“I’m thinking of one case in particular, and his appeals are just so voluminous,” Hansen said. “If I’m working on a Supreme Court appeal, then the other person has to handle everything else that goes on in the office.”
But a history of nuisance filings doesn’t necessarily mean that a person doesn’t have a valid legal case — the person who overwhelmed the Teton County court staff has won one of his numerous appeals to the Idaho Supreme Court, noted Court Clerk Mary Lou Hansen.
In her appeal, Telford contends that Rule 59 is unconstitutional, that she wasn’t given enough time to respond to the eastern Idaho judge’s proposal that she be declared a vexatious litigant, and that the judge abused his discretion when he entered the order.
Telford maintains that the other jurisdictions that have declared her a vexatious litigant have done so wrongly, and that some of those decisions were based on incorrect information. She also contends that she’s been targeted under the vexatious litigation rules because she’s brought lawsuits against powerful corporations, and that court staffers in eastern Idaho have removed parts of her court file to make it harder for her to win her case.
In any case, Idaho’s vexatious litigation law is akin to a finding of contempt and people facing the law should get the same due-process protections, Telford told the Idaho Supreme Court during oral arguments.
“So my position is that due to the nature of the proceedings … the fact that it is a contempt injunction, a hearing should be required,” said Telford, who is representing herself in the appeal.
Idaho Deputy Attorney General Shasta Kilminster-Hadley, who argued against Telford in the Idaho Supreme Court case, said Telford was given plenty of notice of the designation and that she clearly qualifies as a vexatious litigant under Rule 59. She said Telford missed deadlines to fight the proposed vexatious litigation order, and she reminded the court that several other judges have found her to be vexatious.
The Idaho Supreme Court took the matter under advisement and will issue a written ruling at a later date
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