Circuit Court candidates make their case for election

Candidates for two contested judicial seats in Jackson County Circuit Court squared off Tuesday night in an aptly titled "Judge for Yourself" forum.

Seven candidates are battling for positions made available as incumbent Circuit Court judges Rebecca Orf and Bill Purdy vacate their seats.

Joe Charter, a Jackson County Justice of the Peace, along with defense attorney Lisa Greif and Medford civil attorneys Tom Dzieman and Paul Henderson have announced their candidacy for position 8, held by Purdy.

Jackson County District Attorneys Timothy Barnack and John Norton, and former county counsel Doug McGeary are vying for position 6, Orf's seat.

Candidates were asked about their experience and qualifications before an audience of about 20 people at the forum, sponsored by the Jackson County Council Against Domestic and Sexual Violence and the Jackson County Sexual Assault Response Team.

Prepared questions ranged from what can be done to improve the judicial system to what are the root causes of domestic violence to what would each candidate do at a talent show.

Of the 6,000 criminal cases that pass through the Circuit Court, one in five involve domestic violence, said Greif.

Drug and alcohol abuse were cited as either causative or exacerbating factors in many violent crimes. And children witnessing such abuse was a factor in creating generational trauma, the candidates said.

"Children pattern after their role models," said Henderson.

Asked "What would you perceive as the biggest obstacle to justice?" several candidates cited the general public's a lack of understanding of how the judicial system works, social or financial impediments which may deny them adequate representation and the sheer magnitude of cases brought before the courts.

Barnack said he used to provide free legal counsel when he was practicing in Portland. He would like to see the Oregon State Bar mandate pro-bono work for all attorneys, Barnack said.

Charter said a "frightening" case load volume is overwhelming courts. Judges sometimes take only a half hour to an hour to decide complicated custody cases.

An unscripted question from audience member Gerry Sea about the impact of Jackson County losing its misdemeanor probation officers drew the most animated discussion of the two-hour event.

The state provides funding for probation officers covering felony convictions. But the county had been funding the positions for non-felony cases. County budget restrictions caused the positions to be cut about two years ago — a move former county counsel Doug McGeary said he was asked to research for its legality.

"I had to say you can cut off funding, as much as I hated to say so. It was not an easy decision," said McGeary.

Greif said serious felony cases are often pleaded down to misdemeanor offenses. But the lack of supervision meant there was "really no teeth" to sentencing when offenders can violate conditions of probation with impunity when there is no one watching.

Norton said the loss created "a big disaster" within his domestic violence case load. Norton said he lead the way in creating a policy to refer those offenders into domestic violence programs.

"I basically wrote the policy for our office," Norton said, adding one misdemeanor probation officer position has been restaffed through grant funding.

Henderson said the civil side of law has also been impacted by this issue. He had a case where a mother was engaged to a convicted pedophile. The pedophile had refused to enter mandated treatment and had been sanctioned by the court 13 times, but he had not been re-arrested, Henderson said.

"We need to get serious," said Henderson.

Barnack agreed, stating crimes that enter the justice system as felonies should remain as such. And that a person convicted of a misdemeanor can be jailed for up to one year if they violate their parole, he added.

"We need to get more aggressive," said Barnack.

A lobbyist for the Oregon legislature asked what new laws might assist the justice system. Tom Dzieman, the self-avowed "most conservative" candidate said he'd appreciate it if the legislature would exercise some restraint when it comes to writing new laws.

"Asking the legislature to stop writing laws every time they meet would be a start," Dzieman said.

Norton said he'd like to see "new ways to charge felony assault." Some of the current penalties for sexual assault "don't seem appropriate," Norton said.

Prioritizing funding would be a good start, McGeary said.

"They need to understand funding needs to be adequate," he said.

In the tongue-in-cheek talent portion of Tuesday's panel discussion, McGeary confessed to a secret longing to appear on 'Dancing with the Stars,' but said his skills actually ran more towards woodworking. Dzieman said his granddaughter thought he played the Native American flute rather well. Henderson said he was lacking in the song and dance arena. But said he was a dandy listener. Norton put aside his American Idol dreams long ago, he said. But added he is a good marksman. Barnack performed a poem he wrote about domestic violence at an Ashland "slam theater." Greif can play guitar and piano a bit. And Charter had to leave early. But not before he promised he could bore everyone with a Shakespearian monologue.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail

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