The other side of the bench

The other side of the bench

Jackson County's two newly elected Circuit Court judges are adjusting to different hours, new duties and a change in their courtroom perspective.

The two longtime friends and former courtroom adversaries, Tim Barnack, senior deputy district attorney, and Lisa Greif, public defender, were elected to their judicial seats in November.

Greif, used to pleading the cases of defendants, said it's been an interesting shift in job descriptions.

"It's tough sometimes not to want to play the advocate," said Greif. "But you just have to remember that you're the arbiter. That removes any personal bias."

Barnack said he's learning to put aside his prosecutor's mind-set, even when adjudicating cases with repeat offenders.

"People may appear before us that we've seen in the system before," he said. "But I have to decide each case based on the applicable law and the case presented before me."

Both said it has been amusing to watch assumptions about their style of judging prove untrue.

"There's this preconception that Tim would be harder, because he's been a prosecutor," Greif said, "and that I would be liberal because I was the defense attorney."

But that isn't the case, they agreed.

In fact, in most cases, a plea bargain has been hammered out between the state and the defendant's attorney before they enter the courtroom, Greif said.

"Essentially we're being asked to ratify an agreement," she said.

Judges are not bound by the plea agreements. They themselves have had judges reject offered pleas.

"It's rare," Greif said. "But it's happened."

As former trial attorneys, they realize the effort it takes to reach a plea agreement, Barnack said.

"You know the parties have worked hard," he said.

Any number of reasons — a lost witness, a reluctance to place a child on the stand or compelling and mitigating evidence — can make a plea agreement the best resolution to a case, Greif said.

"Some cases just have problems," agreed Barnack. "We're not going to second-guess unless it's an outrageous deal. And we can always pull the attorneys back into chambers and ask, 'What's going on here?' "

"We can rule fast," Barnack said.

Greif said already understanding how witnesses are examined and what to expect in a trial has made that part of the transition easy.

"Also, you get a lot of respect from other attorneys because you've been in the trenches," Barnack said.

When it comes to understanding new case law and other aspects of the job, the two say they have the benefit of the other judges' wisdom and experience. Greif said hearing civil disputes involves learning new laws.

"It's great to be able to go to the other judges," she said, adding she's been doing a lot of reading up on Oregon case law.

Both said switching to a judge's schedule has been an adjustment. Attorneys work longer hours, but their environment and their days are less structured. Tracking down witnesses and heading off to crime scenes are part of the job.

"You don't really have an eight-to-five job in the DA's office," said Barnack. "I've been called out to crashes at 2 in the morning."

The courtroom clock makes for shorter days. There is less flexibility, but also less stress, Greif said.

"Being a judge is less stressful than being an attorney," she said, adding she's using her free time in the evenings to join community boards.

Both witnessed the court closures of 2003 because of budget shortfalls. They expressed relief that aside from a one-day closure on March 13, the Legislature and Chief Justice Paul De Muniz found a way to keep the courts open five days a week — at least through the end of June.

"Justice delayed is disheartening," Barnack said.

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

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