To be a Circuit Court judge in a rural county like ours is to become deeply woven into the fabric of society. “The bench,” as judgeships are known in legal circles, is far more than a front-row seat for human foibles. The right person can be a genuine force for good.
Paula Brownhill is such a person. As she transitions into semiretirement in November after 25 years on the local bench, we can be thankful for having the benefit of her good sense. Her peers recognize her qualities. She received this year’s Oregon State Bar’s Wallace P. Carson Jr. Award for Judicial Excellence, which honors her for making significant contributions to the judicial system and as “a model of professionalism, integrity and judicial independence.”
Most of us go through life without ever having a personal interaction with a Circuit Court judge. Typical residents aren’t charged with felonies. Most of us don’t get sued, or sue anybody else. More may connect with the court for things like probate to transfer property after a loved one dies, or for other court functions like adoptions, contested divorces and child custody. But even in these instances, it’s somewhat unusual to have anything beyond a passing question-and-answer session with a judge.
This lack of familiarity leaves ordinary folks to assume what we see on TV is what a judge’s career looks like. It isn’t. Real judges squirm with embarrassed irritation when they see how television judges get away with behavior barred by law and rules of professional conduct. But by the same token, real-life judges all must be wildly envious of the galloping pace of fictional jurisprudence. While straightforward criminal cases can be wrapped up within a few weeks, civil lawsuits drag on for years. And almost any legal case of whatever kind produces piles of paperwork and seemingly endless procedural steps.
Besides having to interpret — and comply with — state statutes, past decisions, court rules and professional standards, trial court judges like Brownhill are always subject to having their rulings appealed for review by higher courts, including the Oregon Supreme Court. In Oregon, judges also must face voters every six years in order to keep their jobs — though, in practicality, once on the bench it takes a fairly major blunder to get involuntarily thrown off.
Despite the huge workload and many complications of being a Circuit Court judge, it is a much sought-after job. Many lawyers aspire to it — for the prestige, guaranteed income, sense of professional achievement, and belief in a judge’s power to achieve positive outcomes for communities and individuals.
Lawyerly interest in the job is influenced by the fact that Oregon’s Circuit Court judges are among the lowest paid in the nation. They make $142,136 a year — nearly three times the median household income in Clatsop County. Equivalent judges in Washington state make $194,574 this year, increasing to $204,424 on July 1, 2020. Two bills were introduced in the 2019 Oregon legislative session to raise judicial salaries, but both failed to leave committee before adjournment.
Notwithstanding the pay, these coveted judgeships deserve the utmost public interest and attention. Being a good judge requires a strong work ethic, legal scholarship, strictness combined with human decency, understanding of local conditions and societal challenges, intelligent interpretation of statutes and legal precedents and a thick skin to survive the very real strains of having to judge other people.
Being a judge can be, and often is, emotionally stressful. Many criminal and family-law cases bring people to court under the worst of circumstances. Civil lawsuits can involve bitter adversaries, with the judge having to act as a kind of impartial referee.
With a population just under 40,000, Clatsop County is fortunate in having three Circuit Court judges, which greatly helps spread the load. Across the Columbia River, by comparison, Pacific and Wahkiakum counties share one judge between about 27,000 residents. The remaining Clatsop County judges, Cindee Matyas and Dawn McIntosh, will be a great help in getting the governor’s appointee up to speed.
On the down side, trial court administrator Lee Merrill is also retiring this fall. Highly experienced administrative staff like Merrill are invaluable, and difficult to replace.
Six attorneys have put their names in for consideration by Gov. Kate Brown for appointment to the position Brownhill is vacating. Whomever she picks will face election next year.
We all should strongly encourage the governor to name a replacement with ample time arguing cases, a demonstrated connection to our county, impeccable ethics and a reputation for legal acumen. Even with two seasoned judges to help smooth the new person’s path, this isn’t a job for a novice. We must keep a close eye on our new judge and be supportive, while also being prepared to encourage opponents to run.
This is our judge, not the governor’s.