John Vehlow of Kuna likes to fish for his own entertainment but also to help out the young people he has seen in his role as judge for the Ada County Juvenile Court. (Photo by Darrell King)
By Gaye Bunderson
There are many ways to serve the Lord and many places to do it. John and Karen Vehlow of Kuna have served Him in a courtroom, sitting at a judge’s bench.
The Vehlows are now both retired and working as what John calls “rent-a-judges” – senior judges who fill in when a full-time judge isn’t available. The story of when the couple met, what transpired in their lives, and how John made himself notable for both being a judge and starting a program for youth called Scales of Justice is an enlightening one about serving where you’re at.
“Karen and I moved here the same summer: 1975. She had gone to law school in Michigan, and I went to St. Mary’s University in Texas,” John said. They both took a cram course for the Idaho State Bar exam and married early the next year.
“I was the first deputy attorney general for Idaho Fish & Game, and Karen was the first female attorney magistrate in Ada County,” said John. They eventually went into private practice together in Kuna. John was later working at the Boise City Prosecuting Attorney’s Office when an opening came up in 1987 for a magistrate judge. Karen suggested John apply for the job, and he did.
“At the behest of my wife, I got it,” he said. “From ’87 to ’90, I handled all the magistrate court judge responsibilities.”
In that position, John oversaw such things as criminal cases, divorces, guardianships, and adoptions. In 1990, he accepted a position as a judge at the Ada County Juvenile Court and said, “I felt like that was where I belonged, and I stayed there until my retirement in 2005.”
Even prior to accepting the judgeship in 1990, he had an affinity for working with juveniles.
“To me, the fulfilling work was always at juvenile court. It’s a different type of judging than sitting on a bench in adult criminal cases. The one aspect of being a juvenile court judge was that I found an opportunity to change a life – I truly thought I could make a difference,” he said. “If you could make a general rule [about the juveniles], it was that the majority came from some form of adverse circumstances in the past. But sometimes even kids from good homes just went down the wrong road and got into drugs [or other trouble] out of peer pressure.”
Some of the kids may commit a petty offense like stealing something small from a store – it’s a one-time thing and the court never sees them again. However, serious offenders also exist in juvenile court. But the judge maintains no favoritism of good kids over so-called bad kids. He never writes off any of the young people who pass through his court, and his faith is a motivator in that.
John said both he and Karen were not attending religious services prior to coming to Idaho. Then they adopted a baby, a boy they named Eric; and, even though it was a closed adoption, they were told through intermediaries that the birth parents wanted their son raised with a solid Christian faith.
“We made a promise to raise the child as a Christian,” said John. “We ended up at Kuna Church of the Nazarene. Some dear friends of ours – Ken and Ruth Anne Inselman – led us to the Lord, and we accepted Him into our lives.”
Now that their son is grown, the Vehlows are as committed to their faith as ever and now attend Valley Shepherd Church of the Nazarene. John stated: “We accepted Christ, and He has become the most important part of our lives.”
John said that due to the concept of separation of church and state, he cannot outwardly speak about his faith in the courtroom. “But we depend upon our Christian values when we sit on the bench,” he said. “You use everything at your disposal and within your ability to help those kids.”
Something the judge used to encourage youth is his love of fishing through an event he was pivotal in creating called The Scales of Justice Bass Tournament. Not surprisingly, it all started with a troubled youth. The story of Tommy L. began in 1999 when, as an 11-year-old boy, Tommy came in front of Judge Vehlow for: having set a mattress on fire in someone’s garage; angrily tipping over all the desks in his classroom; and beating on his little brother. His parents divorced when Tommy was 6; there had been drugs and alcohol and domestic abuse in the family, and both parents had criminal records. Tommy had been abusing his pets, battering his siblings, and hearing voices telling him to do bad things. He had been hospitalized in 1999 three times and put on medications for depression and suicide attempts. At the time of sentencing, he had spent 41 days in detention; his mother had not visited him once. As for his father, an arrest warrant caused him to flee Idaho.
When Tommy was in front of him, the judge found himself promising the boy that if he completed probation and stayed out of trouble, he’d take him fishing. John said the comment came out of nowhere and was the first time he’d ever said such a thing in court. He was nearly certain that Tommy’s future likely held more trouble and ultimately commitment to residential treatment. But instead, it turned out that Health & Welfare removed him from his home and placed him in a stable foster care environment, and he benefited from it.
With the help of his probation officer and case worker, Tommy successfully completed probation in 2001 and stayed out of trouble, and the judge thought, “I owe him a fishing trip.” He had procrastinated despite a reminder note on his computer, as well as Tommy’s probation officer telling him from time to time, “He still wants to go fishing, and he’s ready when you are.”
“A promise made by his judge had to be kept,” said John.
So with a help of a friend, he picked up Tommy, then nearly 13, at his foster family’s home, took him to Lake Lowell and let him steer his boat. “I hooked the first bass and let Tommy reel him in,” said the judge. Then Tommy caught several on his own pole.
Later in the day, after all the fishing, the group of three decided to stop for burgers. While waiting to order their burgers, Tommy got the judge’s attention and said, “Judge Vehlow, I want you to know that this has been the greatest day of my life.”
The judge, who had seen the worst of deliquent behavior make its way through his court over the years, confesses he teared up at that – and it’s possible he knew right then that that was not to be the last of his fishing adventures with youth. John enjoys bass fishing tournaments with adults and began to think: “Why couldn’t I have a tournament for kids?” And specifically for kids who find themselves in juvenile court?
From 1999 to September of 2004, he sought the approval of people who needed to sign off on such a competition, including the Director of Juvenile Court Services, the Idaho Supreme Court, and the Ada County Commissioners, among others.
“It took me four years to get it together,” he said.
In September of 2004, Scales of Justice launched at Strike Reservoir in Elmore County; over the intervening years, young participants from throughout southern Idaho, as well as Malheur County in Oregon, attended the annual angling competition.
But one monkey wrench was thrown into the works, and it’s the same proverbial wrench that ruined so many other things in the past couple of years: COVID-19. Last year, Scales of Justice was cancelled due to the pandemic. It happened again this year when Ada County Commissioners felt there were too many uncertainties to give the go-ahead for SOJ to take place this September. John said he gets it. “I have no bad feelings; I understand completely – it’s unfortunate, but correct.”
Nevertheless, he feels it could take a lot of effort to resurrect the event after having it cancelled for two consecutive years. “There are many moving parts,” he said.
An SOJ committee met monthly each year to plan the next Scales of Justice tourney; court staff pitched in and helped in organizing the event. Now, some of the order and organization has gone out of it. But it is still potentially on the table for 2022 and no doubt many would like to see it revived.
Ken Jenkins, Training Manager for Ada County Juvenile Services, said: “In 2010, I participated in my first Scales of Justice tournament, shortly after I joined Ada County Juvenile Court Services. I have been heavily involved in the 2010-2019 events, including service as the SOJ Committee Chair for three years. During that time I have worked closely with Judge Vehlow, and I stand in awe of his dedication to youth, bass fishing, and positive mentoring to kids facing a challenge. Nothing was quite as heartwarming as seeing the smiles on the faces of those young men and women when they returned to shore.
“As the community reviews the SOJ program and community safety this fall, I believe we all hope to see SOJ return. The committee and other SOJ volunteers know how much Judge Vehlow has given to the program. He has built a lasting legacy for Ada County as a judicial leader and stellar volunteer.”
The judge stated candidly, “I can’t tell you if Scales of Justice changed lives. I can’t say what impact it had, but I know the youth came in the morning and got in the boats and they came back at the end of the day with their eyes wide open. In 16 years, no kid has been brought back to the shore for bad behavior.”
The kids, usually between the ages of 13-16, pair up with boaters and are given angling equipment, such as a rod and reel and a tackle box; at the end of the day, they get a plaque and a photo of themselves with the fish they caught. Then there is a picnic and an awards presentation. It has been a program well worth the four-year wait that preceded it. The judge said that someone once told him there was a risk in doing the tournament but that risks are sometimes worthwhile. SOJ has been one of those instances.
What’s best about Judge Vehlow and his wife is their complete lack of pretension. Neither has any sense that because they were – and still are on a part-time basis – important members of the rarified group known as courtroom judges that they are any better than anyone else. Judge John Vehlow is well-known simply as Judge Bubba; his wife, who also worked at Northwest Nazarene University teaching business law, among other subjects during her academic career, is quick to say, “We just try to be ourselves.”
Despite all they’ve accomplished, it seems to be working – and hopefully John will be out on a boat with a young person as Scales of Justice 2022 re-launches next year.