Beginning in 2005 our neighborhood here in rural south Salem (Oregon) has been fighting a proposed 43-lot subdivision that threatens our ground and surface water. Since my wife and I are leading the fight against what is usually called the "Laack subdivison," we're used to sitting through long meetings.
Planning Commission meetings. Board of Commissioners meetings. Hearing's Officer meetings. And today, a three hour Marion County Circuit Court hearing before Judge Nely Johnson (a retired Multnomah County judge who was brought in for this vested rights case).
The attorneys for our neighborhood's Keep Our Water Safe committee, Ralph Bloemers and Sean Malone, did a great job. Ralph focused on legal arguments, while Sean concentrated on facts. Vested rights cases in Oregon are determined on a common law basis. That is, judges' rulings on individual cases combine to form the law, rather than legislative statutes or executive actions.
Ralph said that all of the statewide (Oregon Court of Appeals and Supreme Court) vested rights cases are decades old, dating from before the passage of Measures 37 and 49, which altered land use law in Oregon significantly. Several Yamhill County vesting cases were argued before the Court of Appeals last January, so decisions are expected fairly soon -- which will add to the common law and clarify specific Measure 37/49 issues.
Naturally my main focus during the hearing was on the arguments being made by the four attorneys (the two on our side, and two who represented the would-be subdivision developers), and the questions being asked by Judge Johnson.
But now and then my thoughts drifted to a higher level of pondering: how marvelous it was that we Homo sapiens have evolved culturally into a species able to resolve disputes in such a civilized fashion. The attorneys were appealingly courteous to each other. Nobody raised his or her voice in anger or frustration. Facts and the law were being debated, not personal issues.
Lawyers don't get high rankings from the public. Gallup found that only 13% of people say that lawyers' honesty and ethical standards are very high or high. (Just 4% higher than members of Congress; ouch.)
Hmmmm. From what I saw today -- admittedly a tiny sample of lawyerdom -- that's a bum rap.
I admired the good arguments that were made on both sides. Sure, sometimes I disagreed with how some facts and case law were presented. But on the whole I was impressed with how all four attorneys and the judge were intent on discussing the key issues in the case forthrightly, openly, and intelligently.
In court cases, as in sporting events, there's a winner and a loser. Naturally that's important to the contesting parties. However, how the legal game gets played is, in the long run, the crucial thing.
People get upset with judges and courts when they don't like a ruling. By and large, though, our legal system is respected -- as it should be. We don't have a King issuing edicts from on high, or soothsayers casting bones to discern what the Fates have decided.
After a few hours in the courtroom I got tired of sitting on a rather hard bench. But I never lost interest in the proceedings, which struck me as representing the American legal way: fight hard for what you believe in, play fair, and may the best legal argument win.