COEUR d'ALENE - After nearly 27 years on the bench in Kootenai County, John Luster is retiring at the end of this month.
"I still enjoy the work, there's just too much of it," said Luster, 61.
He was appointed a 1st District Court judge in August 2000 by then Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, after serving as a magistrate since May 1986.
Luster, a Coeur d'Alene resident, will continue working part time as a judge for the next few years.
This week, Gov. Butch Otter interviewed three candidates seeking to replace Luster: Magistrate Scott Wayman, St. Maries attorney Richard Christensen, and Kootenai County civil attorney John Cafferty.
Luster, whose father was in the U.S. Air Force, traveled the country and world growing up. He attended Gonzaga University School of Law, where he graduated in 1976.
He came to Kootenai County to work in the prosecutor's office. He also spent time as a defense attorney before putting on the black robe.
Luster sat down on Friday for an interview at his office at the old Kootenai County Courthouse building.
It can be a real stressful job, dealing with people's problems every day. It can build up over a period of time, and I think over so long it's just time to make a decision to let somebody else step in and take over. I never wanted to be one of those judges where people are saying, 'Let's get this old fossil off the bench and get some new blood in there.'
What does retirement hold?
I'm still pretty physically active, and I've got a lot of hobbies and there's just a lot of things I'd like to do. I love to snow ski, I ski pretty regularly, I love to get out and backpack in the summer time. I love to fly fish, I like to climb. I love to ride bikes. I got a couple of grandkids in town who I'd like to spend some time with.
What type of judge have you sought to be, beyond just being fair?
I know from the lawyers' and litigants' standpoint, I think consistency and predictability is a really important factor. Also, walking out of the courtroom with the impression that they've been heard, I think is a really important thing. If somebody goes in there, and maybe they're not expecting to win, but if they walked out of the courtroom and said, 'Well the judge listened to me and considered my argument, and didn't just close his mind and his heart to what I had to say,' I think that's a pretty important aspect to it.
Any advice for new judges?
Don't lose perspective - there are no small cases. Everything is important to the people who come in front of you. The other thing is don't lose sight of the fact that you're serving the public. A lot of times you hear judges, maybe flippantly, say, 'Well that doesn't go on in my courtroom,' or, 'That's not how I run my courtroom.' It's not my courtroom. That's what I would tell my successors. It belongs to the public, and you have to treat it accordingly. This isn't some agenda that we're carrying out, or I'm carrying out. This is a sacred trust that the public gives you to dispense justice.
What has the job taught you?
The job has really taught me to be patient ... and also to try to be a little bit more open in terms of listening and understanding what the issues and concerns are of the people who I have to work with or the cases that I have to resolve.
What have you learned about people?
What I tell my wife (Maidy) all the time is that what we deal with here in court is much more interesting than reality television or anything that they can throw at you. Fact is much more interesting than fiction. You just never get over the variety of things that go on with people. People are extremely interesting, and we see it from every different angle.
What about criminals?
There are some bad people. There are some evil people. There are some people who have engaged in horrendous conduct. Crimes of violence, sex offenses, some of those things that are just basically deviant behavior. But that, I think, is just a small percentage of the criminal case load. The bulk of it are people who have just not got their compass adjusted right because of a variety of reasons, most of which probably stems from their upbringing and their background.
What's one of your most memorable criminal cases/trials?
The (Jonathan W.) Ellington case that I tried twice now because of the very significant loss of life that was involved there, and the factual circumstances of the case. That was a very significant case in terms of having an impact on me. I've had some other murder cases that over the years that have stood out for a variety of reasons. The course of events (in the Ellington incident) that were set into play that resulted in that tragedy - it's something that just didn't need to happen. It's such a tragedy, and that's probably the big thing. (Ellington was convicted of second-degree murder for running over and killing Vonette Larsen, 41, of Athol, with his Chevrolet Blazer on Scarcello Road just east of Twin Lakes Village. Her death ended a chase by Larsen, her husband and two daughters of Ellington. The case remains on appeal.)
Share a memorable moment from your years in the courtroom, either as an attorney or judge?
(Luster was one of the defense attorneys representing two young men in a 1980s rape case.) When the jury reached the verdict late at night and found them guilty, they were both standing up in the courtroom behind the defense table and they both just passed out and collapsed. Fainted right in front of the jury. Then when they came to again they started screaming and yelling and crawling up to the jury, 'You've ruined our lives, you ruined our lives.'
How about a funny moment?
(A couple years ago Luster was the judge during jury selection in a criminal case and one man in the jury pool asked not to serve.) This one gentleman stood up and he just said, 'You know, your honor, I'm not really sure that I'm the right person for this case.' And I go, 'What do you mean?' And he said, 'When I was younger I was in a lot of trouble, and I had some convictions and I was in trials. I've cleaned my act up and I'm doing really well right now and that's way behind me. But I have to tell you that I can't help but to think I'm a little sympathetic to that guy sitting there,' meaning the defendant. 'So, I'm not sure I could be fair.' So we agreed to excuse him. And he had this totally surprised and shocked look. And he looked around at everybody in this crowded courtroom and he goes, 'Wow! That's the first time I ever told the truth in court and it worked.'