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A political brawl is brewing over the way Oregon chooses its top appellate judges.
A national conservative group has begun collecting signatures to force a statewide vote on whether state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals judges should be elected in districts rather than statewide.
In 2002 -- the last time the idea was on the ballot -- Oregon voters narrowly rejected it.
Supporters say the change would diffuse the courts' power away from politically liberal population centers, such as Portland and Eugene, and give rural residents better representation.
Opponents say the initiative drive is little more than an effort to further politicize the courts, particularly the Supreme Court, by making it easier for agenda-driven lawyers to win a seat.
"They want judges who are going to vote in favor of their business constituents or their religious constituents," said Chuck Tauman, a Portland attorney monitoring the effort for the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association.
The initiative campaign is organized and financed by FreedomWorks, a Washington, D.C.-based group that fights for causes such as tax limits, business deregulation and school vouchers.
The makeup of Oregon's high court has become a growing concern of the group because of what it sees as a liberal bias, said Russ Walker, who directs the Oregon branch of FreedomWorks. In particular, the group is upset about a 2002 ruling in which the court upheld a judge's ruling to throw out a voter-approved property rights measure.
"Right now, the state Supreme Court pretty much represents the northwest corner of Oregon and that's about it," Walker said. "We think it's fair that the Supreme Court should be more reflective of Oregon as a whole, rather than just one corner."
Measure slated for 2006 ballot
Under the proposed measure, which requires a constitutional amendment, the Legislature would be given the task of dividing the state into seven districts of equal population for the purpose of electing Supreme Court justices. For the Court of Appeals, the state would be divided into five districts, and two judges from each district would be elected.
FreedomWorks received approval Aug. 1 to begin circulating petitions to put the measure on the November 2006 ballot. The group hired a Portland-based signature-gathering firm, and paid collectors were on the streets starting last week, Walker said.
He said his group has enough money to gather the 100,840 valid signatures necessary to put the measure on the ballot as well as run a campaign to pass it. In 2002, a similar measure failed, 610,063 to 595,936.
The current method of electing judges heavily favors those from metropolitan areas, Walker said. "It makes it very difficult for people from rural Oregon to be elected," because the number of voters in those areas is too small.
Furthermore, Walker said, most Supreme Court justices and appeals court judges are appointed to the court by the governor to fill vacancies, then are elected as incumbents.
Incumbents hard to defeat
"For the last 25 years, all the appointments have come from one party," he said. Attorneys who may want to run for the court often have second thoughts because it's so difficult to defeat an incumbent, and they don't want to get on the bad side of a judge who may wind up deciding one of their cases, Walker said.
Tauman, the trial lawyer representative, dismissed that argument as specious. Oregon Supreme Court justices have drawn challengers in each of the past four elections, leading to some high-profile contests.
"The problem Russ (Walker) complains about is, they can't win," Tauman said. "The reason they can't win is the candidates aren't qualified. They're basically political hacks."
Wallace Carson, chief justice of the state Supreme Court, said it would be inappropriate for him to comment on the ballot measure because his court is handling the ballot title on a similar measure.
Dave Hunnicutt, executive director of the property rights group Oregonians in Action, ran for the Oregon Court of Appeals in 2002. He said he felt at a distinct disadvantage because he was running against an incumbent.
He supports voting for judges by district because it would bring a more diverse set of backgrounds to the bench.
"You need a judge from Eastern Oregon, for example," Hunnicutt said. A judge with an agricultural background might look at a legal issue differently from one with an urban upbringing, he said.
District voting would break the "old boys network" that dominates appellate court placements, Hunnicutt said. "It's really a tough hurdle to overcome, especially when you're not part of the Portland legal establishment."
Harry Esteve: 503-221-8226; firstname.lastname@example.org