Judge Michelle Mallard denies Lori Vallow’s bond reduction at the Madison County Magistrate Court on Friday, May 1, 2020. | Pool photo
IDAHO FALLS – Michelle Mallard knows exactly how she would describe her nearly 12-year term on the bench as a magistrate judge in Bonneville County.
“Service, sacrifice and stress.”
Mallard announced her resignation in October after more than a decade making rulings on child custody, domestic violence and other civil matters.
The only female judge in the 7th Judicial District, Mallard left the bench on Nov. 30, starting a new chapter in her career as a private practice attorney with Parsons Behle & Latimer on Dec. 1.
Beginning with the first “S,” Mallard says her main focus as a judge was to be of service to her community. It’s something she deeply cares about.
“All we really do is try and take care of people. As magistrates, we make decisions that are really important to people’s lives and can be really helpful both in the criminal and the civil arena,” says Mallard. “If you can get people on the right track, then the community is better off.”
Mallard, a seventh-generation Idahoan, feels particularly lucky to have had the opportunity to be a magistrate judge in her hometown, helping people who often could not help themselves.
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“I was an assistant U.S. attorney, so I was a federal prosecutor down in Pocatello. And I’ve always been attracted to being a judge because they get to be neutral. They don’t have to advocate for one side or the other. They can take everything into account and make a decision based on that,” says Mallard. “This has been an amazing opportunity, to be a magistrate judge, and one that not very many people get.”
District Judge Dane Watkins Jr., a long-time colleague and friend of Mallard, says she acted efficiently on the bench, consistently making well-informed decisions.
“She’s thoughtful and deliberate in her decisions,” says Watkins. “Knowing that when Judge Mallard is on the bench, she’s prepared, hardworking, will hold expectations high for all involved parties and lawyers — that’s just what everyone understands. You wouldn’t worry about any of those things with Judge Mallard.”
Mallard says Idaho Falls was the perfect place for her to carry out her career on the bench, aiming to make a difference and serve her community as best she could.
“We’re just so lucky to live here. It’s the size of town where there are plenty of great things to do, and also small enough where you can make an impact with your service and your work in any field,” says Mallard. “Idaho Falls is the right size where you can make an impact if that’s what you want to do.”
According to Mallard, being a magistrate judge requires quite a bit of sacrifice. Many lawyers who are going from private practice to the bench suffer a large pay cut, something that deters many from serving in the position.
“You sacrifice money. Right now, the pay is so low, and almost anybody going on the bench from private practice will take a really big pay cut,” says Mallard. “A lot of judges are taking a pay cut unless they’ve been government employees before.”
Additionally, the job comes with a lot of scrutiny. Mallard says she had to consistently remain vigilant about her presence in the community, how she presented herself, and who she surrounded herself with to protect her career and the independent judiciary, as she understood that the job came with a specific set of unorthodox rules.
“You’re always ‘on’ in the community, no matter where you go. Unless you’re with your closest friends, you always have to remember that you’re going to be noticed,” says Mallard. “You have to limit your friendships. You can’t really be friends with lawyers the way you used to be. I can’t take part in any sort of political activity.”
Mallard is moving on to start a new career as a private practice attorney at Parsons Behle & Latimer. | Kaitlyn Hart, EastIdahoNews.com
Watkins says magistrates not only sacrifice a pay increase, but even their sleep to be the best judges they can be.
“There is no question that you’re sacrificing a career for generally higher paid positions, for community service. Judge Mallard has done this her whole career,” says Watkins. “A magistrate is often interrupted in the middle of the night with search warrants and other magistrate-related matters. And that’s a sacrifice.”
The stress of the job eventually wears a person down, Mallard says, adding that most judges retire after around 10 years.
“It does start shaving away at your soul after a while,” says Mallard.
Toward the end of her time on the bench, Mallard says it became apparent that it was time for a change. At the start of the pandemic, everything about the court system had to adapt, turning a job she had known for nearly a decade upside down.
“Life got really hard during COVID in the courts, and I decided I wasn’t going to make any decisions right then,” says Mallard. “Many people think that really 10 years is about all you can do. Ten, maybe 12 years effectively, because burnout is a real thing, and it’s a very stressful job. And that’s right where I was at. It was like 10 years and I started feeling like, ‘I just don’t think I can keep doing this.’”
Mallard says there have been numerous times that she has feared for the safety of herself and her family because of her line of work, partially leading to her decision to step down from the bench.
Judge Michelle Mallard addresses defense attorney Mark Means during Lori Vallow Daybell’s second bond reduction hearing at the Madison County Magistrate Court on Friday, May 1, 2020. | EastIdahoNews.com
Mallard’s husband, Kelly Mallard, who is also an attorney, has often slept with a gun by their bed out of fear based on threats stemming from contentious court cases.
“My husband would sleep with a gun by our bed based on certain court cases and threats that were either made or implied,” says Mallard. “You live in a fishbowl in Idaho Falls. You’d only have to ask one or two people where I lived, and they would know. There was really no personal security.”
Mallard also briefly alludes to a certain amount of difficulty coming from being the only female judge in the entire 7th Judicial District, which includes Bingham, Bonneville, Butte, Custer, Jefferson, Madison, Clark, Fremont, Lemhi and Teton Counties.
She spoke carefully about her experience being the minority on the bench, but says that she has heard rumors regarding the difference in treatment between her and the male judges.
“I don’t know that I could point to any experiences, but I have had clerks tell me that I get treated differently by both defendants and attorneys than the male judges do,” says Mallard. “But I don’t know that because I’ve never been, you know, I don’t go in other people’s courtrooms.”
On the other hand, Mallard says a lot of stress comes from knowing that you are deciding the next pathway for someone’s life to take every time you make a ruling, especially when the situation includes children.
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“The hardest decisions I’ve had to make are when I’ve had to decide which parent gets primary custody after a trial when both parents really want primary custody,” says Mallard. “You always have to figure out what’s best for the children.”
Watkins corroborates this, saying that Mallard has productively dealt with the stress of difficult cases for many years in a career filled with conflict.
“If it’s high, high conflict, it’s the judge’s responsibility to manage that. And it’s often done with a great deal of stress,” says Watkins. “She has worn that for a number of years. I think with Judge Mallard serving 12 (years), that represents a lengthy judicial career and one that would bring those three S’s very, very prominently in her career.”
Working in the same career for over a decade, change and overturn is inevitable. Mallard says her job became more difficult and included more elements of stress after the most recent election of Bonneville County Prosecutor Randy Neal, who was sworn in on July 25, 2022, after beating out the incumbent Prosecutor Alayne Bean.
After Neal’s appointment, nine out of the 10 criminal prosecutors left the office, leaving the office to find new prosecutors to fill in.
RELATED | Nine out of 10 criminal prosecutors are leaving Bonneville County. What’s next?
“You have a labor shortage with attorneys, just like everything else. So it’s hard to even find people,” says Mallard. “And then when you do, almost none of them that he’s hired have had prosecutorial experience.”
Mallard says she believes that many of the current prosecutors need to gain the experience required to take on the positions they’re being given.
“People think expertise doesn’t matter, but it does matter. For many, many years, we had a really well, high-functioning prosecutor’s office, and that got wiped out with the election,” says Mallard. “People made their own personal choices, and you had almost nobody left in that office.”
As she leaves the bench and begins this new chapter in her career as a private practice attorney, Mallard says she is excited about her new journey and hopes that the community will grow to be more mindful of what it’s like for local judges and how complex their every day can be.
“One of the factors that’s making me leave the bench is that it is so challenging right now to be a judge,” says Mallard. “Threats against judges have increased. I’ve had colleagues who have had their homes picketed. Their courtroom personnel have been followed by people unhappy with their decisions.”
Mallard says her co-workers have been doxed, meaning they’ve had their personal information posted online out of spite, and accused of being corrupt, when she sees the opposite.
“They’re constantly being criticized and accused of being corrupt when all I see are colleagues who are doing their very best, who are very honest,” says Mallard.
Mallard says she hopes the public will seek to educate themselves on the importance of an independent judiciary and the sacrifices that judges all over the country make every day.
“I would hear people say things to me like, ‘Oh, we’re so glad you’re in that position. People are so corrupt in government.’ And I finally had enough and said, ‘I’ve worked in government my whole career,” says Mallard. “Every single person I work with, or have ever worked with, has had the highest integrity, far higher than most people even realize or understand.’”
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