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Lawyers swarm to fill vacancy

Nine candidates on ballot for Multnomah County judge opening

One of the candidates calls it the 'thundering herd vacancy.'

And, if you live in Multnomah County, the thundering herd - of lawyers, no less - already has found its way onto your November election ballot.

Nine lawyers want to fill a vacancy on the Multnomah County Circuit Court. Thanks to timing and a series of unusual twists, one of them very likely will win the race with not a majority but a plurality of the votes. Theoretically, one-ninth of the votes, plus one, could turn one of the candidates into Multnomah County's next circuit court judge.

The race is for the judge's seat formerly occupied by Multnomah County Circuit Judge Clifford Freeman, who died Aug. 21 after a long battle with cancer. Freeman was 62.

Normally, the death of a sitting judge begins a process that would lead to the Oregon governor appointing someone to the seat. The appointed judge would then run as an incumbent - and a favorite - in the next general election.

But that appointment process involves the governor asking for nominations, and asking the county bar association to evaluate the applicants and forward its recommendations to him.

It's a process that often consumes months. And because Freeman's death came so near the filing deadline for the November election - Aug. 29 - an appointment wasn't possible.

That left an open circuit judge's seat. With not even a pseudo-incumbent running.

The Multnomah Bar Association let its 4,200 member lawyers know of the situation on Aug. 25. Within four days, 10 of them had filed in the race, with one of them eventually dropping out.

All of which compelled another of the nine to offer a competing - and equally nonlegalistic - metaphor.

'It was kind of like the Oklahoma Sooner wagons racing to the secretary of state's office,' said candidate and Portland lawyer Mary Overgaard. 'Every time you'd open the (Secretary of State's) Web site, there were more.'

None of the dozen or so local lawyers or courthouse watchers who spoke to the Portland Tribune could remember when there were nine people on the ballot, running for a judge's seat - even in the May primary, where, if no one gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters go on to a November runoff.

And no one, of course, could remember this even more unusual situation.

'None comes to my mind - where we had that many people, where there's not going to be a runoff,' said former Multnomah County Presiding Judge James Ellis, who retired from his full-time judge's job in 2002 but who remains a part-time judge.

Still, even with its unusualness, the race has not generated the attention that the other vacancy on the Multnomah County Circuit Court has. Portland lawyer Leslie Roberts is alone on the ballot for that seat - after she, only days before the filing deadline, formally challenged the candidacy of incumbent judge Youlee Yim You, whom Gov. Ted Kulongoski appointed to the seat in August. You had not lived in Oregon for three years before her filing to run for the seat.

The fact that, until Roberts' challenge, no one had filed to run against You points out the politics surrounding Oregon judgeships. Few lawyers want to run against incumbent judges, even those who've been incumbents for only months.

'No one wants to run against someone with the title 'incumbent' after their name on the ballot,' said Jim Hennings, executive director of the county's Metropolitan Public Defenders and longtime courthouse watcher. Hennings helped found Metropolitan Public Defenders 35 years ago.

So, in the relatively rare cases where there is no incumbent, anyone who has contemplated being a judge dusts off their candidacy papers, Hennings and others said.

Candidate and Lake Oswego lawyer James Leuenberger, who two years ago unsuccessfully ran for the Oregon Supreme Court, considered one of the positive aspects of the situation: 'It does give the voters of Multnomah County the rare opportunity to vote for a person who's not been selected by the governor first.'

But there is, of course, the other aspect. Only a portion of voters bother to vote in judges races anyway. Now, a small portion of that small portion of voters likely will elect a judge.

'Someone could very well win who really didn't get very many votes,' Ellis said.

'I think the winner will have 15 percent, maybe less,' Leuenberger said. 'Is it ideal? No. I think it would be better if we had a majority. But it's the way the chips fall.'

Ellis said he's not sure the statute that governs such elections ever contemplated this happening - a slew of candidates running after a primary election, which then allows for no runoff.

'In light of hindsight, probably a group of people ought to sit down and study whether this is the best way to do it,' he said.

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Candidate: Charles L. Best

Age: 52

Legal background: former Multnomah County senior deputy prosecutor, later in private practice, most recently vice president and general counsel for Electric Lightwave, LLC, in Vancouver, Wash.

Comment: 'You name it, I've done it. And I guess my view is you want somebody who can hit the ground running … and hopefully have a broad background in many things.'

Candidate: Mark K. Kramer

Age: 49

Legal background: former Multnomah County public defender, lawyer for the St. Andrew Legal Clinic, co-counsel for the Oregon Senate Judiciary Committee and last 18 years with own firm

Comment: 'I've got a diversity of experience. … I also have the ability to see people's problems in a civil and humane way.'

Candidate: James E. Leuenberger

Age: 49

Legal background: former lawyer for Idaho Court of Appeals, then prosecutor for Idaho attorney general's office; sole practitioner in Portland and Lake Oswego for last 14 years

Comment: 'I believe too few judges take their oath of office seriously. It requires (judges) to support the United States Constitution and the Oregon Constitution and to be impartial.'

Candidate: Judith Hudson Matarazzo

Age: 47

Legal background: private practice, specializing in auto accidents and more recently medical malpractice litigation

Comment: 'What is absolutely key is that people have both confidence in and respect for the judiciary … that regardless of the outcome, somebody feels they got a fair shake.'

Candidate: James J. McIntyre

Age: 51

Legal background: longtime Multnomah County assistant district attorney, recently in private practice

Comment: 'I've worked my entire career toward public safety and trying to help people. I bring a lot of compassion and judgment and also a very strong work ethic.'

Candidate: Mary Overgaard

Age: 55

Legal background: former legal adviser to the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries and former deputy city attorney for Portland, former circuit court judge pro tem; former human resources manager for private companies and Multnomah County

Comment: 'I think the thing that makes me stand out is I'm the only candidate running who has judge pro tem experience. … It will allow me to hit the ground running.'

Candidate: Theodore E. Sims

Age: 51

Legal background: general civil litigation practice, mostly personal injury and consumer law litigation, along with legal work for small businesses

Comment: Sims said he hopes his candidacy can offer voters a chance for a different sort of lawyer as judge - 'somebody else on the bench who doesn't come from the ranks of the DA's office or the criminal defense guys.'

Candidate: Ulanda L. Watkins

Age: 36

Legal background: in private practice, partner in Portland firm; primarily criminal defense law

Comment: 'My philosophy of a judge is someone who's fair and impartial and who is respectful to everyone who steps into the courtroom. When they leave, win or lose, they (should) feel they've had their day in court.'

Candidate: Christopher D. Wright

Age: 44

Legal background: private practice, with an emphasis on tax issues, estate planning and civil litigation.

Comment: 'The breadth of experience I bring - not only legal issues but business issues - (provides) a wider area of issues than most people who run for judge.'