Circuit judges become scarce in rural counties

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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

CourtroomBench BENCH BLUES

Low pay, long commutes and a heavy workload make it hard to find judges for the rural areas of the state.

By Jon Bell

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, judges in rural Oregon would literally ride the circuit, saddling up their horses and galloping from courthouse to courthouse to tend to judicial matters across their respective territories. It was a hardship at the time, no doubt; one of the minuses to being a trial judge far from the bustling urban centers of the state.

A century or so later, the horses have been replaced and the inconveniences of travel have been somewhat smoothed out. But in some remote places in rural Oregon, judges are still riding that circuit.

In the 10th Judicial District, for example, Wallowa and Union counties share two circuit court judges between them. It’s a 72-mile, hour-and-a-half trip between the two county seats for the judges, both of whom live in Union County. Wallowa County gets a judge every Wednesday and then for a handful of days each month as needed for trials.

“The fact that in Wallowa and Union we share two judges is hard for us,” says Mona Williams, the district attorney in Wallowa County. “Our judges put in a lot of hours and do a lot of traveling.”

In addition to some commuting hardships, judgeships in rural Oregon come with several drawbacks that don’t necessarily make them the most attractive positions — or the easiest to fill. There’s the public sector salary that’s a fraction of what a judge can make as a private practice attorney. There’s a rigid work schedule, which sometimes can include being on call 24 hours a day. And there’s the prospect of working in often dilapidated and underfunded court facilities.

Throw in a dash of public scrutiny and a pinch of criticism, and it’s no wonder that, come election day, voters don’t have too many choices to consider when they vote for circuit court judges in rural Oregon.

“It is true that we have a hard time recruiting judges in rural Oregon,” says Jillian Schoene, a spokesperson for Gov. Ted Kulongoski, whose office helps publicize judicial vacancies and fills them via appointment under certain circumstances. “It doesn’t just apply to judges though, but we are very aware of the issues that keep folks from applying.” The office says it is hard to average the number of vacancies that arise each year, because most are created by retirements, which are unpredictable.

In addition to the Oregon Supreme Court, the Oregon Court of Appeals and the Oregon Tax Court, there are 36 circuit courts in Oregon spread over 27 judicial districts.

According to the Oregon Judicial Department, state law determines the number of judges elected in each district, usually by population and the volume of cases. There are currently 173 circuit court judges in the state. Almost all of them are elected, though some are appointed by the governor to fill vacancies until the next election.

In the more urban areas of the state, filling a vacancy or finding candidates to run isn’t too difficult. For example, a circuit court vacancy in Marion County earlier this spring prompted at least nine candidates to submit materials to the governor’s office for consideration; just four candidates vied for one in Lincoln City. And a few years ago in Josephine County’s 14th Judicial District, just four applicants applied for two open judgeships.

“We can have an opening in Portland and get 25 applicants,” Schoene says, “and in other parts of the state we can get zero, one or two.”

The primary reason, of course, is simple demographics: The pool of qualified candidates is not nearly as large in rural areas.

“We’ve heard from people about how difficult it is to fill positions just due to the fact that the rural areas cover a lot of land with a lot fewer people on it,” says Susan Grabe, public affairs director for the Oregon State Bar.    

A smaller pool of candidates often means an even smaller pool of qualified ones.

“When there’s not a lot of competition, then you don’t always get the most highly qualified people to fill those positions,” says Lindi Baker, presiding judge in the circuit court of the 14th Judicial District.

But the difficulties in finding judges in rural areas run deeper than just pure population numbers. One of the main roadblocks is a number of another sort: salary.

“It may not be that there aren’t enough people who want to be judges; it may be a pay issue,” says Evan Hansen, a lawyer with Grable & Hantke LLP. “Anecdotally I’ve heard of some people who have considered being judges, but then they realized that they would be taking a pay cut, which they didn’t want to do.”

Until the last legislative session, Oregon judges were paid less than judges in any other state in the country, according to the Oregon Judicial Department’s 2007 annual report. As of June 30, 2007, circuit court judges here made $95,820 a year in salary, not including benefits.

Acknowledging the comparatively low pay, the Legislature approved judicial raises of 16% on July 1, 2007, bringing annual circuit court judge salaries to $111,132. An additional 3% will kick in this July, bringing that number up to $114,468. (Total compensation, which includes benefits such as health insurance, PERS and Social Security, will be $189,800 in 2009, according to Schoene.)

While that’s not exactly a pittance, compared to the lucrative field of private law, it could be seen as modest.

“I make the same now as I made in the ’80s at a law firm in San Francisco,” says Baker. “That was a long time ago.”

Becoming a judge also can be a big downer for attorneys who are used to working on their own terms, on their own schedules and in their own offices. While judgeships offer some flexibility, it’s not much. In Baker’s case, she also is required to be on call 24 hours a day for one week each month so that there is always a judge available.

Judges’ workloads are often heavy, and many court facilities also are in disrepair and lack updated equipment. The ODJ’s report found: “Courthouses throughout the state are overcrowded, inaccessible to citizens with disabilities, and have old and sometimes dangerous electrical and plumbing systems.”

“So people take a pay cut, lose their autonomy, work in a building that doesn’t have the latest equipment and is short-staffed because of budget reductions, and they have to run for election and then be tied to being in courtroom all day and if they’re not, they get criticized,” says Grabe. “People say, ‘Why would I ever do that?’”

The strains can be even tougher in districts that are already short judges to begin with, not because a vacancy couldn’t be filled, but because there aren’t adequate judgeships in the first place. District 14, for example, has been identified as a district that is short one judge. That can delay trials and otherwise slow down the judicial process.

“When you’re working short like that, there’s more work per judge,” Baker says. “We can’t keep up with it.”

In the 10th District, Williams says that when she first took over as DA in 2007, some cases had to be dismissed because they’d lingered so long that the defendants missed out on their right to a speedy trial. That happened in part, she says, because it was nearly impossible to schedule a court date with a judge.

“It would be great to have just one more part-time judge out here in Wallowa County,” she says.

It’s up to the Legislature to fund enough judgeships in each district, and every biennium, districts state their case for additional positions based on case filings and overall caseload. State court administrator Kingsley Click says no new judgeships were created during the last biennium, but four were during the 2003-05 session.

“The ability to have judges where we need them is still an issue,” she says.

In addition to the Legislature’s recent pay raise for Oregon judges, other efforts are under way to help ensure that the state is able to recruit and retain enough well-qualified judges. For starters, an interim legislative committee is assessing the condition of state court facilities and will make a recommendation to the Legislature as to what improvements need to be made.

The hope is that not only will improved facilities be safer, sounder and more practical, but that they’ll be one less negative to give prospective judges pause.

The governor’s office also works closely with the state bar to spread the word about all judicial vacancies and to recruit qualified candidates. And the state also is working on building a web-based court it calls Oregon eCourt, which eventually may help streamline the judicial process and ease some of the burden on courts and judges.

On top of such measures, there’s always the fact that some people, such as Richard Barron, will take on the work of a judge no matter the pay, no matter the work. Barron is the presiding judge of the 15th Judicial District in Coos and Curry counties. He’s been on the bench for 28 years, run unopposed for re-election five times, and plans to run again.

“I know my former partners have made more money than I have,” he says, “but I love my work. It’s been very rewarding. There’s not been a day when I’ve awakened that I didn’t want to go to work.”

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