Nine candidates for one seat. How do you decide?

By Bear Wilner-Nugent of Portland, Oregon. Bear describes himself as a "a criminal defense lawyer and avid Democratic activist on semi-furlough from hands-on activism this year while I enjoy the magic of my daughter's first year."

As the cacophony of national and statewide campaigns begins to build toward a crescendo, to some of us political junkies the archetypal dynamics of American elections are best exemplified in contests closer to home. Take, for instance, the nine-candidate brawl to succeed the late Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Clifford Freeman.

(Notice that I did not write "replace." For those of us who appeared before him, love him or hate him, no one could ever replace Judge Freeman, whose combination of irasciblity, compassion, and obsession with the petty details of the law was unique.)

While being, on the surface, both nonpartisan and frankly of little immediate importance to anyone but lawyers and frequent litigants, the campaign for Judge of the Circuit Court, 4th District, Position 28 is a Petri dish of reinvention, puffery, staid consensus, and earnest striving.

Moreover, it is that relatively rare and juicy psephological artifact: a polycandidate, first-past-the-post election for a single seat that is guaranteed to last only one round, meaning that a candidate could theoretically be elected despite the fact that over eighty-eight percent of those bothering to venture so far down the ballot had voted for someone other than him or her.

With restrictions on how openly judicial candidates can discuss issues that might later animate cases coming before them, the sources of information for nonlawyers in races like these are few and far between. Citizens might read the voters' pamphlet (where candidates, facing a filing deadline only a week or so after Judge Freeman's death, essentially had to scrawl something on the back of an envelope; expect to see the words "fair" and "tough" a lot); check out a newspaper endorsement (because, after all, editorial board members spend tons of time thinking about what makes a good trial judge); and perhaps walk around their neighborhoods, where lawn signs in this sprint have already mushroomed as thickly as if it had the lifespan of a normal campaign. But how far does that get us?

Following up, then, on Marc Abrams's coverage of the race, let me a few more thoughts about voters' choice, heavily influenced by discussions I've recently had with fellow lawyers who would prefer to remain anonymous.

Nine candidates. Here we go:

A civil lawyer pointed out that frequent and varied courtroom experience is the sine qua non of a circuit court judge. She said, rightly, that "lack of trial experience does not bring a 'fresh perspective' to the bench, only an uninformed one." Taking this as gospel, at least for now, who among the pack has been an ardent trial lawyer?

Well, Jim McIntyre has, but it is unclear that the citizens of Multnomah County, where he used to be a senior deputy DA, were well served in the bargain. A criminal defense lawyer to whom I put my questions about the race responded by pointing me to news articles showing that, among other things, McIntyre got fleeced by a multiple murderer and kept an innocent man in jail for thirteen months, refusing to admit that he made a mistake. He also may have incarcerated two other innocent people for murders that turned out to have been committed by the Happy Face Killer, Keith Jesperson, although he did at least take steps to secure their release once that mistake became apparent. Disturbingly as well, McIntyre washed his hands of the mysterious jailhouse death of Steven Dons after participating in what was widely seen as a sham investigation by the DA's office.

McIntyre is not the only candidate with a troubled record, although his mistakes are on a life-and-death level to which nothing else compares. Mary Overgaard left her pro tem appointment to the Multnomah County bench under clouded circumstances. Among other blunders that left her judgment open to question (and notwithstanding her later leadership with the gay and lesbian lawyers' association), she once told an AIDS joke while sitting on the bench, in her robe, on the record, before a courtroom of citizens. Following that incident, and based on other problems with her record, criminal defense firms began to "affidavit" her – to request a different judge – whenever she presided over arraignments. Forced out of the arraignment courtroom when no lawyers would appear before her (a very rare circumstance, that), she spent a stint in small-claims court, then ultimately went back to law practice. But that's not all: Overgaard also, when learning that a lawyer had bought a house in North Portland, wondered incredulously how he could possibly live with all "those people" and send his kids to school with "those children." By the accounts I've heard, Overgaard shoots far too fast from the lip to be a good candidate for the circuit court.

If those two candidates are the worst, certainly Marc Abrams is right that Mark Kramer has the best résumé of the bunch. At least one lawyer I communicated with, however, worries that he comes across as too soft-spoken to establish his authority over a courtroom. You can't win 'em all, I guess.

Ulanda Watkins, meanwhile, gets dissed by Abrams for her supposed lack of experience and by some fellow criminal defense lawyers for a perceived deficit of smarts. Watkins, though, is remembered by other lawyers for being exceptionally bright and hardworking going as far back as law school. As the only African-American candidate in this race to assume the seat of a prominent African-American judge, and with by far the best publicity campaign, Watkins stands to benefit by unifying important segments of the voting community even while fellow attorneys can't make up their minds about her. In a race like this, that just might be enough to pull off a victory even if it didn't secure the raft of endorsements accruing to an establishment consensus candidate like plaintiffs' lawyer Judy Hudson Matarazzo.

Marc also points out just one of the nutty details of Jim Leuenberger's record. Leuenberger, a former attorney for Lon Mabon (boy, that's a name I'm glad we're not hearing so much anymore), was also reprimanded by the Oregon Supreme Court for ethics violations in a 2004 case where the Oregon State Bar had intially recommended a career-kneecapping six-month suspension from the practice of law. Leuenberger, who perhaps uncoincidentally ran without success in that year's election against openly gay Supreme Court Justice Rives Kistler, is a favorite of property-rights types as well as having the aforementioned OCA ties.

The dust cloud surrounding this race is such that it tends to obscure the details of the other three candidacies. With all the limits on information and politicking imposed by the exigencies of the contest and the nature of judicial elections, it is unclear whether any method could allow the public to do a good job in picking a name out of this particular hopper. I say, then, out of concern for the courts I appear in front of every day, and not just out of an attorney's élitism, isn't it time we rethink the prudence of electing our judges at large, as though their job was to represent constituencies rather than interpret the law?

  • BlueNote (unverified)

    Here is one lawyer who is voting for Mark Kramer. His credientials are legit, and speaking as a civil attorney, we need more attorneys with civil experience to counterbalance the overabundance of former prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys on the bench.

    By the way, thanks for the well written post. I would say "fair and balanced" but those words make me gag - thanks to Fox "News" Channel.

  • JTML (unverified)

    Wow, that's a fearless summary.

    One question, though: do any of the candidates maintain sites where additional information (even if self-serving) can be obtained?

    The ability to utilize the Internet is one indicator of administrative ability. I think we want our judges to be well-organized.

  • Tamerlane (unverified)

    I've made this argument before, but I'm going to repeat myself. I am a very politically active college student who aims on entering law school in the future. Although I am by no means someone with "inside information" and all that, it's still a safe bet that I'm much-better informed than most voters. And even so, when it comes to judges I am almost totally incompetent as to how to vote. It's not just that I don't know these people, I also don't know the law -- and am, thus, incompetent to judge the qualifications of those running. From this I conclude that the election of judges is a crock. We should accept the arguments put forward by Justices O'Connor and Breyer and adopt a Missoui plan; where jusges are appointed by a panel of legal folks. I am also concerned that when we elect judges, which has proven quite a scandalous endeavour in certain parts of the nation, we put them into the political arena which can have all sorts of problems for impartiality. I am reminded of a story from my family folklore. When my mom was in college she was very active with various women's rights groups, who worked actively to help elect a certain candidate who was, I think, the first woman to serve at whatever level she served. Anyway, this made my grandfather, who was quite liberal but also an attorney, furious. He repeated over and over that he knew the woman, went to law school with her, and knew damn well that she was certifiably insane. My mom and her group triumphed, arguing that the politics of electing a woman were more important than the opinions of a bunch of lawyers. Some time after that the judge was forced to relinquish her seat when she was hospitalized for mental illness. My point is that the average voter just isn't in a position to analysize the qualifications of the various candidates for judge.

  • Rusty (unverified)

    Am I the only one that thinks this race only underscores how Leslie Roberts jobbed this election?

    Vote Charles Henderson for judge.

  • Izzul (unverified)
    <h2>I agree that we shouldn't elect judges. The relative ignorance of the general public reguarding all things criminal (the justice system and its problems, the role of a judge, the role of a supreme court judge, even things as simple as what district they are in!), coupled with situations like this one is potentially disastrous. At the very least it results in uninformed votes, or lack of votes as many abstain when the don't feel they know whats going on.</h2>
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