Judge Election Measure Qualifies for Oregon Ballot

Members of Oregon’s two highest courts — which currently are dominated by judges from the Portland area and the Willamette Valley — would have to be elected by district rather than statewide under a measure that qualified Thursday for the Nov. 7 ballot.

State election officials said there were 102,637 valid petition signatures for the proposal, with 100,840 needed to send the measure to voters.

It was the final measure to be certified by the state for the November ballot, meaning that Oregon voters will decide on a total of 10 initiatives this fall. Those proposals range from a tough new state spending limit to an expansion of Oregon’s prescription drug discount program.

Backers of the measure to have Supreme Court and Court of Appeals judges elected by districts instead of statewide say it would bring greater geographical and philosophical diversity to the courts. A similar initiative was narrowly rejected by Oregon voters in 2002.

As it stands now, all but one of the seven current Supreme Court justices and 10 Court of Appeals judges are from Portland or the Willamette Valley. The exception is Appeals Court Judge Walt Edmonds, who previously served as a judge in Bend.

“Right now, most of these guys are representing downtown Portland and downtown Eugene, and ignoring the needs of the rest of the state,” says Russ Walker, the Oregon director of FreedomWorks and a leading advocate for the measure.

But critics say the latest measure is an attempt by FreedomWorks, Nevada businessman Loren Parks and other financial backers to bring a more conservative tilt to the state’s highest courts.

“It’s an attempt to drive the courts in a certain ideological direction,” said Chuck Tauman, a Portland lawyer who is part of a coalition that’s been formed to oppose the measure.

The measure would have two Court of Appeals court judges elected from each of five districts, possibly matching congressional district lines. One Supreme Court member would be elected from each of seven districts.

The measure’s supporters say it would ensure that rural voters would elect some members of the two courts.

Walker acknowledges he and others are partly motivated by a dislike of recent court decisions, mainly a 2002 ruling in which the Supreme Court threw out on procedural grounds a voter-passed property rights initiative.

“They thumbed their noses at the will of the voters,” Walker said.

Aside from opponents’ arguments that the measure is an attempt to politicize the courts, foes also say it would increase the cost of the court system because judges would have to live in their districts.

That means judges from outlying districts likely would need district offices and also have to travel to Salem to hear arguments in cases, the opponents say.