My election to the Idaho Senate in November rekindled my interest in my grandfather’s term as an Idaho State Senator. I knew a little about it but hadn’t done much research. None of the Blackfoot newspapers printed during that time have been digitized, so that makes looking into his state senate career doubly difficult. Fortunately, the Idaho Statesman from the 30s is readily available.
Bingham County’s Senator James Just served during two biennial sessions of the Idaho Legislature, the 23rd session in 1935-1936, and the 24th in 1937. The 23rd session included three shorter special sessions and the 24th had one special session. He was still a senator in 1938, but the Legislature managed to get along without a special session that year.
When Jim Just served in the Legislature, senators were elected by county. Today, all legislators are elected by district, with one senator per district and two representatives. In 1935, Bingham County’s population would have been about 20,000 people. Today, each of Idaho’s 35 districts have about 52,000 residents. District 15, which I serve, covers a portion of Boise and Meridian, with a tiny little strip in unincorporated Ada County.
My first clue about what kind of a senator Jim Just was came from John Corlett. John was the dean of Idaho political writers for many years, reporting for the Idaho Statesman. In his later years, he became friends with my mother, Iris Just Adamson, when they were both living in a Boise assisted living center.
I asked John once what he remembered about Senator James Just. His favorite memory was how grandad got his nickname—a nickname I didn’t know about until then.
“He would march up to the podium to pontificate about some bill,” Corlett said. “He’d hook his thumbs through his suspenders and bounce up and down on the balls of his feet while speaking. It didn’t take long for him to earn the nickname, ‘Jumpin’ Jimmy Just.’”
In those days—1935-1938—the Legislature was the big entertainment in town. The Idaho Statesman covered it blow-by-blow, often reporting the full debate on contentious issues in committee and on the floor of the Senate.
Senator Just was vigorous in his debate. Reporters often painted a picture of him “violently” objecting or “indignantly” springing to his feet to debate.
Today, the decorum of the Senate would shut that down right away, but back then, the rules were much looser.
The Senator was not a big fan of higher education. Just hated being bothered by lobbyists. He was a proponent of cutting agency budgets by 10 percent, and he fought hard (though unsuccessfully) to recognize and honor US Senator Fred T. Dubois with a grave marker.
When a move came forward to divide Bingham County, putting Aberdeen into Power County with American Falls, “Senator Just of Bingham took the floor with his maps and telegrams and letters, and explained how the natural flow of trade from the area went into Blackfoot,” according to the Idaho Statesman. The move to split the county failed.
Just fought to retain an exemption in Idaho’s lien laws for automobiles valued under $200 on the grounds that poor people needed their cars to get to work and town. Often automobile liens came into play because of medical debt. Senator Just remarked that “instead of taking a poor man’s automobile, the doctor should take a mechanic’s lien on the baby.”
In a side note during the 1935 session, the Idaho Statesman reported this exchange:
“Senator Just of Bingham county: ‘The senate is made up of lawyers and honest men.’
Senator Friend of Latah county: ‘I hope the senator from Bingham doesn’t draw the line too close between those two groups.’”
In a debate about how to carry out the death penalty in Idaho, the proposal was to switch from hanging to lethal gas.
“Senator Just of Bingham said he had first been against the bill, for he feared lethal gas might be used on the majority members of the legislature, but the more he studied the matter the more he was favorably impressed,” according to the Idaho Statesman.
“I can build a gallows for $4.80,” said the senator from Bingham, “so I judge it is a fair estimate that the state would have to spend $2500 for a new gallows. Therefore, this is an economy measure.”
The Church of Latter-Day Saints proposed turning over Ricks College to the State of Idaho in 1937. Senator Just was against it, as he was most higher education measures, but he took the time to pay tribute to the Mormon Church for their fine work in educating students at the school.
There are echoes today of the debates they were having back then. Senator Just pointed out what he considered a lot of waste. Each legislative bill and journal had a cover on it. Just thought they should be reused rather than tossed out with the trash. Recycling.
Just wanted radios banned in cars because they were distracting to drivers. That bill failed, but decades later, a bill was passed to outlaw texting and driving on the same grounds. Note that the texting bill was championed by Just’s great great granddaughter, Leslie Dolenar and her husband Dan. Dan received serious and permanent injuries due to a texting driver a few years ago.
That automobile safety was on Senator Just’s mind seems oddly out of character. I barely remember him, but I do remember much family talk about what a terrible driver he was. His first year in the Idaho State Senate marked the beginning of a requirement that all drivers have a license to operate a vehicle.
When the Legislature came back into session in 1937, the Idaho Statesman reported that, “Senator James Just of Bingham county is back in his familiar post on the front line of the upper house, although he protested the arrangement was against his will. Senator Just planted his paraphernalia on a rear desk, staked out a claim, as it were. Senator L.L. Burtenshow of Adam, offered advice to the contrary.
“Now, Jim,” he said, “think how tired you’ll get walking from clear back here up to the front every time you deliver an oration.”
The paper ended the piece with, “Senator Just is up front.”
Because I’m currently unable to research Blackfoot papers from the time of his service, I don’t know if Jim Just decided not to run for a second term or if he was defeated.
One clue might be a quote from the Senator in the Statesman regarding his regrets about coming to Boise and leaving his cows back home on the borders of the Blackfoot Reservoir.
“Sometimes,” confided the Bingham county solon, “my service in the legislature seems like nothing but a dream, and a bad dream at that.”
Now that voters in District 15 have given me a chance to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps, I’m eager to see just what kind of dream it is.