At today's Salem City Club meeting, "The State of the Oregon Courts Address," I chose a good table to sit at after walking over from the food table, a vegetarian lunch cradled in my hands.
The speaker, Honorable Thomas A. Balmer, Chief Justice of the Oregon Supreme Court, was sitting next to me.
I thought I recognized him from his talk on the same subject last year. A confirming clue was him saying, "The speaker has to get here early and eat fast, or be hungry during his talk."
Balmer and I had a pleasant conversation before the meeting was called to order. He was so casual, pleasant, and unassuming, I pretty much forgot that I was talking to Oregon's Chief Justice.
Thinking back, I don't really regret any of my off-hand remarks.
However, when Balmer told me that the court system doesn't have a typical legislative agenda, I might have phrased my response in a bit more refined manner than my, "Yeah, it wouldn't be very surprising to legislators if you said Hey, we're going to enforce the laws of Oregon this biennium!"
After hearing Balmer speak and answer questions, I had a simple overall feeling. Us Oregonians are really fortunate to have such competent people running our state courts.
I had a question in mind during the Q&A session, but never raised my hand to ask it of Balmer -- in part because it was more of a comment. It would have sounded something like this.
The United States Supreme Court is highly politicized. Many, if not most, Americans don't trust that the Court rules according to the law, but rather on the basis of political viewpoints held by the judges. The Oregon Supreme Court, though, is almost universally respected as being fair. Why is this state so fortunate in that regard, and what do we need to do to keep our Supreme Court beyond politics?
During our pre-meeting chatting, I told Balmer that electing judges bothers me. In other states that do this, right-wing political groups have targeted judges who make decisions on same sex marriage, abortion, or other issues that bother the conservatives.
But so far Oregon has seen very little of this, especially on a statewide level (Court of Appeals and Supreme Court). Maybe it's because the judges on these courts are viewed as so fair and competent, politicizing their decisions wouldn't fare well with Oregonians.
Or maybe our liberal leaning, taking Oregon as a whole, immunizes the court system from the sort of politicized targeting of judges that has plagued other states. Whatever the reason, I think all Oregonians should be grateful for our great court system, and not take our good fortune for granted.
Oregon citizens have reasonable reasons to criticize the performance of both our legislative and executive branches of government. Regularly, each manifests major screwups, including a failure to deal with pressing problems.
If our state judicial system also lacked widespread trust, things would be considerably worse. Which, unfortunately, is the case on the federal level. A high proportion of the American people don't trust the president, federal agencies, Congress, or the Supreme Court.
Balmer referenced the upcoming Supreme Court decision about PERS (Public Employee Retirement System) reforms recently passed by the Oregon legislature. Whatever the ruling is -- Balmer said it should come early this year -- many people will be disappointed by it.
I predict, though, that the Oregon Supreme Court decision will be respected. It won't be dismissed (except by a few) as being politically motivated. That's a big plus for our state.
Lastly, in his City Club speech Hannah Hoffman of the Salem Statesman Journal got a well-deserved shout-out from Judge Balmer for her column about observing the Supreme Court hearing on the PERS case. He liked Hoffman's observations about her first viewing of the Court in action, and quoted from them.
Download Behind the scenes: Reporting on the Supreme Court
Here's some excerpts from Hoffman's piece.
1.) It's very public.
Journalism school is full of horror stories about public bodies that want to keep secret what they do. Courts are notorious for it. You hear story upon story about courts that don't allow photography, the use of laptops, or sometimes even reporters themselves.
The Oregon Supreme Court does not do that, and I was surprised.
2.) It's not a trial, it's a thesis dissertation.
In most trials, attorneys make opening and closing arguments where they explain what they are trying to prove, what they want the judge or jury to come away with. They spend the rest of the time trying to make a case for their argument.
This is not how the Supreme Court works.
It was obvious Greg Hartman, Keith Kutler and the other four lawyers who testified had prepared thoughtful, logical arguments in favor of their positions. They never finished those arguments, however, because the judges give them about three minutes to speak (maybe) before they start asking questions.
3.) "Shall" is more important than I realized.
Certain words are particularly important to lawyers, and "shall" is one of them. The judges spent ages on that word and what it means. It is, apparently, crucial in determining whether a statute creates contract language.
4.) The judges are always paying attention.
I am most used to watching people testify before committees in the Oregon Legislature. Usually, what happens in those hearings is a few lawmakers are truly engaged, although at least one or two fall a bit short in their understanding of some points. Others are only half listening and end up asking questions whose answer came two minutes before. Others are clearly messing with their phones, their notes or something else. Some actually close their eyes and appear to be napping.
...Watching the court is not like this. The judges are always engaged. They're listening to everything. They see everything the attorneys do because they never look away. (One justice did look at the ceiling for a while. He appeared to be sorting out his thoughts.) Every judge has a question for nearly every attorney. Those seven minds are nowhere but in that courtroom.