Nelson v. Big Lost River Irrigation Dist.

Citation133 Idaho 139,983 P.2d 212
Decision Date22 July 1999
Docket NumberNo. 24093.,24093.
PartiesDave NELSON, Willard Bell and Marx Hintze, Plaintiffs-Appellants-Cross Respondents, v. BIG LOST RIVER IRRIGATION DISTRICT; Board of Directors, Don Aikele, Marx Hintze, Harry Crawford, Ray Boyack, and Charlie Huggins; and Vivian Ellwein, an individual, Defendants-Respondents-Cross Appellants.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Idaho

Hepworth, Lezamiz and Hohnhorst, Twin Falls, for appellants. Eileen A. McDevitt argued.

Holden, Kidwell, Hahn and Crapo, Twin Falls, for respondent Big Lost River Irrigation District. Kent W. Foster argued.

Hollifield and Bevan, Twin Falls, for respondent Vivian Ellwein. KIDWELL, Justice.

This case involves an election contest concerning the election of directors to the board of the Big Lost River Irrigation District. After finding discrepancies in the way the election was conducted and the way the ballots were counted, a defeated candidate brought suit to challenge the election results. The district court refused to declare either candidate duly elected and ordered a new election. The district court also awarded fees to both parties. The decision of the district court is affirmed in part and reversed in part, and the case is remanded.



The Big Lost River Irrigation District (BLRID) is an irrigation district organized as a quasi-municipal corporation under the laws of the State of Idaho. On November 5, 1996, an election was held to elect directors to its board. Election judges were provided with an assessment list and instruction sheet for use at the polls. During the election, a number of qualified voters were turned away because their names did not appear on the assessment list.

Six days after the election, the existing board met to canvass the votes of the election. The board found a significant number of discrepancies in the votes. Because of these discrepancies, the board did not certify the election at that time. On December 10, 1996, the board met again and had the precinct judges recount their ballots. The board then certified the results on a vote of three to two. Vivien Ellwien was declared the winner of the race between herself and the incumbent Marx Hintze by a vote of 241 for Ellwein and 239 for Hintze.

On December 30, 1996, Hintze and two land-owners in the district (appellants), filed a verified complaint and petition for writ of mandamus seeking to have Hintze declared the winner of the election. They also sought an order or a writ to have the sheriff place Hintze in possession of the office. On January 7, 1997, appellants filed for an ex parte temporary restraining order (TRO) seeking to restrain BLRID from allowing Ellwein to serve as a director. BLRID responded by filing a motion to quash the TRO. Ellwein moved to disqualify the judge, whereupon Judge Herndon was replaced by Judge Moss. On February 4, 1997, the district court entered an order enjoining both Ellwein and Hintze from serving as directors of BLRID.

On the morning of February 12, 1997, appellants filed an amended complaint again seeking to have Hintze seated as a director and also to have the court issue a writ or an order directing the board to perform certain statutory duties relating to election and record keeping. Later that day, a trial was held before the district court.

On March 6, 1997, the district court entered its findings of fact and conclusions of law. It found that qualified voters had been turned away from voting by the election judges' improper challenges. Some of the voters who were turned away were unidentified. Of the identified voters who had been turned away, ten testified for whom they would have voted. Six testified they would have voted for Hintze, three testified they would have voted for Ellwein, and one was undecided. Additionally, the court found that prior to the elections, BLRID had not completed accurate maps that reflected which lands were within the boundaries of BLRID. Finally, the court found that the only contested election results were between Ellwein and Hintze, and not the other two contestants for a different seat.

The next day, the district court entered its judgment. After declaring the Ellwein v. Hintze election void, it ordered that BLRID hold a new election between the two candidates. During the interim, BLRID was allowed to seat a temporary director to the board. BLRID was also ordered to prepare election handbooks for their election judges. The individual directors of BLRID were then dismissed as parties and the court ruled that the other election results were confirmed. Finally, the court awarded fees and costs to the plaintiffs from BLRID, but not from any individual directors.

Following the entry of judgment, BLRID filed a motion to amend the findings of fact and conclusions of law. BLRID also filed a motion for costs and attorney fees. The next day, appellants filed a memorandum of fees and costs claiming $3,630.03 in costs and $16,051.00 in attorney fees. Appellants then filed a motion to disallow costs and fees claimed by BLRID. Both sides filed numerous affidavits and memoranda in support of their claims for fees and costs.

On May 27, 1997, BLRID held a second election in which Ellwein was elected.

On July 11, 1997, the district court filed amended findings of fact and conclusions of law which made minor changes to prior findings. On the same day, it issued a memorandum awarding the plaintiffs costs of $832.56 and attorney fees of $7,031.86. The district court simultaneously issued another memorandum decision awarding fees to BLRID for its defense of the TRO and requested injunction. These were offset against plaintiffs' award, which netted plaintiffs $2,762.93. On July 23, 1997, plaintiffs moved for clarification. The district court responded on August 11 with a concise explanation of its decision. Appellants filed a notice of appeal on August 19, 1997. BLRID filed a cross-appeal on September 9, 1997.



The pleadings and briefs of this appeal raise several issues, including whether a writ of mandamus should have issued; whether general voter registration is required for electors of irrigation districts; whether attorney fees were properly awarded to each side and whether the district court should have ordered the second election. After a review of the record and hearing oral argument we determine that it is not necessary for this Court to resolve all of these issues to satisfactorily adjudicate this matter.

At the outset, we note that while the appellants' requested writ of mandamus was not issued, the district court did issue an order. In this order, the district court granted much of the same relief as was sought by the appellants in their request for a writ.

However, the issue that resolves the primary dispute before us, is the inquiry concerning the validity and necessity of the second election that was ordered by the district court.

As a preliminary matter, it is necessary to resolve the standard of review this Court should adhere to in addressing this type of election dispute and resolution by the lower court. In reviewing the judgment of a district court concerning a contested election, this Court will not disturb the findings of fact of the lower court where the findings of the lower court are supported by competent evidence, even if there is substantial conflict in the evidence. Huffaker v. Edgington, 30 Idaho 179, 183-84, 163 P. 793, 795 (1917). Insofar as the remedy selected by the district court, we will apply an abuse of discretion standard to our review of the election contest. We will also apply an abuse of discretion standard to our review of the award of attorney fees. Brady v. City of Homedale, 130 Idaho 569, 573, 944 P.2d 704, 708 (1997).

In determining whether a district court has abused its discretion, this Court will apply the three-factor test articulated in Sun Valley Shopping Ctr., Inc. v. Idaho Power Co., 119 Idaho 87, 94, 803 P.2d 993, 1000 (1991). These three factors include: 1) whether the trial court correctly perceived the issue as one of discretion; 2) whether the trial court acted within the boundaries of this discretion and consistent with the legal standards applicable to the specific choices available to it; and 3) whether the trial court reached its decision by an exercise of reason.

Id. I.C. § 34-2021, amended in 1982, states:

The judgment of the court in cases of contested elections shall confirm or annul the election according to the right of the matter; or, in case the contest is in relation to the election of some person to an office, shall declare as elected the person who shall appear to be duly elected or, in the alternative, order the office to be filled according to chapter 9, title 59, Idaho Code, or order a new election to be held at a time and place as determined by the court. (emphasis added).


In the present case, the district court properly recognized that the Idaho Code provided the court with the discretion...

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5 cases
  • Electrical Wholesale Supply Co. v. Nielson
    • United States
    • Idaho Supreme Court
    • December 31, 2001
    .... . . are subject to a substantial and competent evidence standard of review.")); see also Nelson v. Big Lost River Irrigation Dist., 133 Idaho 139, 142, 983 P.2d 212, 215 (1999) (citing Brady v. City of Homedale, 130 Idaho 569, 573, 944 P.2d 704, 708 (1997)). An award of attorney fees is a......
  • Thomas v. Arkoosh Produce, Inc.
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    • Idaho Supreme Court
    • June 5, 2002
    ...The district court's choice of remedy is also reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard. Nelson v. Big Lost River Irrigation Dist., 133 Idaho 139, 141, 983 P.2d 212, 214 (1999). Whether the trial court abused its discretion is determined under a three step analysis: "(1) whether the tr......
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    • Idaho Supreme Court
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    ... ... Litchfield v. Nelson, 122 Idaho 416, 422, 835 P.2d 651, 657 ... ...
  • Noble v. Ada County Elections Bd.
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    • Idaho Supreme Court
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    ...are supported by competent evidence, even if there is substantial conflict in the evidence. See Nelson v. Big Lost River Irrigation Dist., 133 Idaho 139, 142, 983 P.2d 212, 215 (1999). This Court exercises free review over the trial court's conclusions of law. See Carney v. Heinson, 133 Ida......
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