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UI aims to expand law school offering in Boise

If lawmakers can get past jokes about too many lawyers in Boise already, the University of Idaho stands a good chance of doubling its programs in the state’s capital.

Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter is behind a $400,000 measure to add a second-year offering for law students, to the third-year program now in Boise for students focusing on international business law or government. Lawmakers appear amenable, too.

That’s a change from 2008, when the Moscow-based school was initially rebuffed on more-ambitious plans to establish a full-fledged Boise branch law campus.

What’s changed? For one, there’s no longer creeping suspicion, including among Moscow-based lawmakers eager to protect home turf, the UI is trying to uproot its law school from its remote home on the Palouse for Boise’s more-populated confines.

Another thing: Lawmakers are eager to ensure Idaho’s lone public law school keeps pace with Oregon-based Concordia University’s private law school, which launched a program in Boise last year.

Concordia “probably sharpened the issues we saw already,” said Don Burnett, UI’s law school dean. “Concordia simply pointed out, there is a demand for legal education in the Treasure Valley.”

Back in 2008, Burnett had ambitious plans for his law school in Boise, championing a $6 million proposal — half funded by taxpayers — for a full-fledged Boise branch campus with 250 students.

Another 250 students would remain on the UI’s Moscow campus.

His concerns were the same as today: Moscow, surrounded by wheat and lentil fields 300 miles north of Boise, might not appeal to urban-minded students; offers fewer chances for working adults to complete a law degree without piling on debt; and denies prospective lawyers opportunity to gain valuable experience in the state’s corporate and government epicenter.

But the proposal then drew fire from, among others, former Republican State Sen. Gary Schroeder, who pledged to make sure the university didn’t get “one dime” to move any part of its law school.

Consequently, Burnett found himself on the defensive, reassuring legislators — and the State Board of Education, whose members govern the UI — he had no plans to leave Moscow high and dry.

He says the town where the UI was founded in 1889 — a year before Idaho statehood — will remain the place where students focusing on environmental law, dispute resolution, tribal law and water issues will complete degrees.

Ultimately, state trustees six years ago approved a Boise program that offers students a chance to complete their third year, beginning in 2010.

There are now about 40 in the program. This year’s expansion would double the size.

Meanwhile, Schroeder is gone, and the Palouse’s current crop of legislators are confident Burnett’s plans will buttress the UI law school by making it more attractive to a broader range of prospective students and keeping pace with private upstart Concordia — all without undercutting its Moscow roots. The UI’s law school totals about 320 students now, with about 280 in Moscow.

“Do I see this as a threat?” said state Sen. Dan Schmidt, a Democrat now in Schroeder’s seat. “Not at all. I have no doubt that a law school at the University of Idaho in Moscow is in the vision for the future.”

“A public law school is important to have in the government and business center of the state,” added House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston.

Burnett says getting a second-year program won’t be the end of his push.

He hopes to eventually add a first-year program, too, so students could do virtually all of their legatraining in the state capital.

If there’s a lesson from 2008, however, it’s that Idaho officials are more likely to back programs offered to them in baby steps, not all at once.

“In future years, the plan would be to offer students a chance to start the first year in Boise,” Burnett said. “I don’t anticipate that request being made any time soon.”

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