Viewpoint: Why Circuit Court Judge Races Are Important
Guest Viewpoint: Dr. Vincent Mulier
I have been asked many times why ordinary people should care about a campaign for Oregon circuit court judge.
In Oregon, circuit courts are trial courts. Trial court judges don’t set policy. That is the work of the legislature. Trial court judges they don’t carry out policy. That is the work of the executive.
Appeals court judges have some influence over policy because they make lasting decisions about what laws mean, and, more importantly, they make decisions about what police and prosecutors are obligated to do to protect the rights of citizens. But trial court judges don’t do any of these things.
Once in a long while, when a legal issue is a matter of first impression in a trial court (because an appeals court has not yet had a chance to rule on it), a circuit court judge gets to decide what the law means. But this is very rare, and, even then, the circuit court judge’s decision is important only until an appeals court judge looks at the issue and makes a lasting decision. Trial court judges have only a very small role to play in how our society is run. No meaningful decisions about which values our society should give weight to, and which public policies we should pursue, are made by trial court judges.
For this reason, many people believe that circuit court judges should not be elected. Many voters think that the politicizing of judgeships — a process which accelerates when judges are subject to election — is harmful to our judiciary. Yet we are stuck with this system whether we like it or not. Voters will continue electing circuit court judges in Oregon unless and until the state Constitution is amended.
And voters should care deeply about who gets elected to the position of circuit court judge. Although they have no effect on public policy, circuit court judges have enormous influence over how the law is applied and whether or not our constitutional rights and freedoms are adequately protected. Circuit court judges make sentencing decisions in criminal cases. In some criminal cases, they make findings of guilt or innocence. They make child custody decisions. They make decisions about property distribution in divorce and probate cases. In landlord-tenant disputes, they make decisions about whether or not to evict people from their homes.
Every day, decisions such as these affect the lives of countless individuals, families, and communities. How the law is applied is just as important as what the law is. Voters should care enough to elect judges who are wise, fair, impartial, and deeply respectful of the rights of the individual.
Furthermore, circuit court judges are entrusted to safeguard the rights of the individual against the powers of state and money. The state has an enormous advantage in every prosecution of an ordinary citizen. In civil suits, wealthy corporations have enormous advantages over regular people. Many people cannot even afford to hire attorneys, and plaintiffs in civil cases are often unrepresented by counsel.
Corporations, on the other hand, often have entire law firms at their disposal. The most important duty of a judge is to ensure that the rights of defendants and litigants are fully protected, and that underprivileged defendants and litigants are given the same benefits as their overprivileged adversaries.
A judge’s first duty is to protect the legal rights of citizens. In the United States, the legal rights of citizens are enumerated in the United States Constitution, particularly in the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments) and the Fourteenth Amendment. The Bill of Rights ensures freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, and freedom to petition the government for redress. It also ensures the right to bear arms, the right against unreasonable search and seizure, the right to legal counsel in criminal cases, the right to due process, the right against double jeopardy and self incrimination, the right to a speedy trial, the right against government takings, and the right against cruel and unusual punishment. The Fourteenth Amendment ensures equal protection under the law.
All of these rights are duplicated in Oregon’s state constitution. Some of them, such as the right against unreasonable search and seizure, have been interpreted by Oregon courts as securing stronger, more inclusive rights than the ones secured in our federal constitution.
These rights must be liberally construed and consistently enforced if we are to retain our freedoms. Today, these rights are under assault by the legislative and executive branches of government, under the pretexts of “public safety,” the “war on terror,” the “war on drugs,” and a supposed need for government secrecy. In the face of these attacks, it is up to the judiciary to zealously defend our rights.
Today, more than ever, courageous judges are needed to serve on our courts.
About this week’s guest viewpoint contributor:
Dr. Vincent Mulier is running a write-in campaign for Judge of the Circuit Court, 2nd District Position 7, in Lane County. Dr. Mulier is a criminal defense attorney in Eugene/Springfield and a Philosophy Professor at Portland State University.
He holds a doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Oregon as well as a law degree from Willamette University. He teaches ethics at Portland State, including courses in Environmental Ethics, Business Ethics, and Criminal Justice Ethics.
Dr. Mulier is a long-time resident of Eugene, having moved here in 1990 to attend graduate school at the University of Oregon. He has practiced law in Eugene and Springfield since 2007. His daughter is a freshman at the U of O.
For more information about Dr. Mulier, visit his campaign website at http://www.mulier4judge.org/.