County bench battle raises some eyebrows
May election - Prosecutor Andrew Erwin is trying to unseat incumbent Keith Rogers
It's the kind of battle you'd expect to play out in a courtroom on network television.
A veteran defense attorney who claims Atticus Finch as a hero is pitted against a county prosecutor from a long judicial lineage.
But if the characters sound familiar, the conflict isn't. That's because this battle isn't happening in the courthouse; it's playing out at the ballot box.
Keith B. Rogers - a former public defender who was appointed to the Washington County bench by Gov. Ted Kulongoski in December 2007 - is fending off a challenge in the May 20 election from Deputy District Attorney Andrew Erwin.
Erwin has cast Rogers as 'soft on crime.' Rogers' backers, meanwhile, have alleged that Erwin is in the pocket of victims' rights advocates.
Both dismiss the charges, but the heat in the upcoming election is almost unheard of in a judicial race, especially one involving a sitting judge.
Members of the Washington County bar say an incumbent judge hasn't been challenged for 16 years, and a member of the DA's office has never led the charge.
But Erwin told the News-Times that Rogers' background, including his admiration for the fictional crusading defense lawyer in 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' made the clash inevitable.
'I expected somebody from the DA's office to step up and run against him,' Erwin said. 'Our concern was that he wouldn't be able to take the defense attorney hat off.'
From 1998 to 2007, Rogers served as director of the Washington County office of Metro Public Defenders, a private firm that has a contract to handle many of the court-appointed cases in the Portland area.
But the 57-year-old lawyer said he's tried enough cases now that his record shows he's a fair arbiter.
'I do not have an agenda,' Rogers said. 'I'm not trying to prove anything. My goal only is to follow Oregon law as faithfully as possible.'
Erwin, of course, disagrees. The 41-year-old county prosecutor points to a February DUII case, State v. Cerriteno-Palemeno, where Rogers dismissed four traffic charges, citing a lack of evidence.
'He goes through this tortured logic because he wants to believe three drunk friends instead of a police officer,' said Erwin, who's netted the endorsement of nearly every police union in the county.
Rogers said the case was a straightforward example of the state not proving its case.
'If you want someone who will find people guilty when the state has not proved the guilt, then you shouldn't support me,' Rogers said.
Drawing voters to the ballot
It's hard to predict what effect, if any, this philosophical split will have on voters. But because judicial candidates are limited as to what they can say about specific cases and laws, courthouse contests are some of the least-covered elections in the state.
'A lot of time these judge races, it comes down to who's got the better name,' said Republican State Sen. Bruce Starr. 'It's hard to tell where they stand on the issues.'
Starr and fellow statehouse politicians Sen. Mark Hass, Rep. Larry Galizio and Rep. Jerry Krummel are backing Erwin in the election. Starr said his decision came about because of a clipping from the Hillsboro Argus, where Rogers, then a private attorney, spoke out against Measure 11, the state's voter-approved mandatory sentencing law, passed in 1994.
Rogers is now prevented by judicial ethics from saying what he thinks of the law. He said he hadn't been interviewed by the Argus in at least a decade.
'The bottom line for me is, I'm going to apply Oregon law,' Rogers said. 'I'm not a legislator.'
Both candidates have raised about $17,000 and snagged a grab bag of endorsements.
While Erwin's endorsements tend toward law enforcement (he counts Washington County District Attorney Robert Hermann and Sheriff Rob Gordon as supporters), Rogers' lean toward judicial endorsements.
Holly Pihl, who spent more than 40 years as a Washington County judge, is supporting Rogers in the race.
Pihl said the very prospect of a deputy district attorney challenging a sitting judge raises eyebrows among those on the bench.
'All the other judges are saying, 'Oh my God, if this kid, with 9 to 10 years on the bar, came out of the blue and defeated an incumbent judge, where am I in the next election?''
That cage rattling may explain why 83 percent of lawyers supported Rogers in the Oregon State Bar poll.
Erwin knows he's in an uphill battle, and said that a number of people told him not to run. Even so, he thinks the race is important to keep personal agendas off the county bench.
'If Rogers had done things differently, I wouldn't be in this race,' Erwin said, 'All cases are not 'To Kill a Mockingbird.' You've got to walk away from Atticus Finch when you take the bench.'