A life of service, passion and love By Jillian Chandler | Photo by Adair Media Group
A third-generation Idahoan, Barbara Buchanan grew up in a large, blended family in Moscow, attended the University of Idaho for both college and law school, and with the exception of a year at the University of Massachusetts on a student exchange program, she has lived her entire life in Idaho.
While a freshman at U of I, she met Rick Dalessio, a graduate student from Massachusetts and her lab instructor for her chemistry class. “Romance blossomed amongst the beakers and test tubes,” Barbara smiles. The two were married in 1977 and celebrated their 45th anniversary in 2022.
Barbara served as a magistrate judge for 18 years before being selected as the first female district judge for the First Judicial District—the role she’s held for the past decade. After 28 years sitting on the bench, she is set to lay down the gavel at the end of this month.
Q. What brought you to Sandpoint and when?
A. I graduated from law school in 1983. In 1985, I traveled to Sandpoint to interview with a group of four young male attorneys who were looking to hire an associate. It was early October. The tamaracks were turning to gold, the sun was shining, and the lake was glorious. I remember calling Rick and telling him I was taking this job no matter what they paid me. Luckily, they offered me the job and a fair salary. Rick and I and our two young daughters relocated to Sandpoint in July of 1986.
Q. When did you first realize your passion for law?
A. I grew up in a working-class family. Neither of my parents attended college, and I did not know anyone who was a lawyer. Like my mother, I was a passionate reader, and, unlike her, I never stopped talking and arguing my point of view. I loved writing and debating. Teachers, and other adults, would tell me I should be a lawyer. Although my undergraduate degree is in psychology and I intended to become a child psychologist, in the back of my mind, I always thought about being a lawyer. I decided to take the law school entry exams—the LSATs—and see how I scored. I did well, applied to law school, and here I am.
Q. As a lawyer, what area did you specialize in?
A. When I came to Sandpoint, there was only one other woman attorney in town. My partners encouraged me to specialize in family law, as none of them wanted to handle divorce and custody cases and because they believed many women would prefer a woman attorney. Turns out they were right. After a few years, I privately referred to myself as the divorce queen of Bonner County.
Q. What inspired you to take the leap from lawyer to judge?
A. My first job as an attorney was as a law clerk for the chief justice of the Idaho Supreme Court. I loved that job. Working with the justices and the other clerks honed my ability to look at every side of an issue to try to arrive at the best resolution under the law. I decided as a young law clerk that I would try to become a judge someday.
Q. You served as a magistrate for 18 years before becoming the first female district judge in North Idaho. What did breaking that barrier mean to you? And to other women in law?
A. I was so honored when Governor Otter selected me as the first female district judge for the First Judicial District. It was one of the best moments of my life. As an attorney, I practiced in front of Judge Debra Heise. She was the first female magistrate judge in Bonner County and served as a role model and a mentor for me, both when I was an attorney and when, I too, became a magistrate judge. We now have many talented female attorneys practicing in the First District. I hope that, like Judge Heise, I have been a mentor and a role model for them.
Q. What do you believe has been your biggest accomplishment since taking the bench and why?
A. I like to think I was a judicial pioneer in establishing drug courts, using mediation, and in promoting children’s rights.
Q. How do you hope you've inspired the next generation of women lawyers and judges?
A. Between 2013 and 2020, all three of Bonner County’s judges were women. To my knowledge, that has never happened before or since in the state of Idaho. I hope that I and my fellow judges have inspired the next generation of women lawyers to aspire to become judges.
Q. What local organizations/nonprofits are you involved with in the community? And why are these important to you?
A. I have just been elected to the board of directors of Sandpoint Rotary. I also serve on the board of directors of Food for Our Children, a local nonprofit that provides weekend food bags for Bonner County children. For many years, I served on the board of directors for the Festival at Sandpoint. I have been so fortunate in my life. I have been blessed with a wonderful, supportive husband, a loving family, a healthy body, and a good brain. It is both my duty and my pleasure to give back to the community that has given so much to me.
Q. What do you foresee in your next chapter after retirement?
A. My last day in office as a sitting judge is January 31. After a three-month mandatory break, I will begin serving as a senior judge, filling in for other judges as needed. I also plan to do both civil and criminal mediation. And, of course, I will remain active in community nonprofits. We have a new granddaughter arriving in February, right after I retire. I plan to spend a lot of time with her and with other grandchildren.
Q. When not serving the community, how do you enjoy spending your time? And with whom?
A. My husband is the love of my life. I met him as a college freshman, and we have been together ever since. In addition to Rick Dalessio, I love being active: walking my dog, riding my bike, skiing, swimming, relaxing on our pontoon boat on the lake, and spending time with our kids, grandkids, extended family and friends. And Rick and I plan to finally take that long-dreamed-of trip to Italy.
Q. Is there anything else you would like to share?
A. I want to say thank you to my district court team and to all my co-workers at the courthouse for their dedication, hard work, and for the unwavering support and friendship they have given me over the last 28 years. I want to say thank you to all the wonderful judges I have served with. And I want to say thank you to the citizens of Bonner and Boundary County. It has been my honor and my privilege to serve as your judge.