Philosophy and politics have a long, glorious, and troubled relationship. In ancient Greece, the philosopher Plato spoke in eloquent poetry of the importance of philosophy to a civil society. In The Republic, he went so far as to argue that, in an ideal state, philosophers should be society’s rulers: “philosophers [must] become kings…or those now called kings [must]…genuinely and adequately philosophize.” The ancient Chinese sage Confucius focused more on articulating a philosophy of ethics, arguing that family should serve as the basis of government. In the Analects, Confucius argued for his version of the Golden Rule: “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.”
In modern times, however, many people see philosophy as antithetical to politics. Philosophers nowadays seem enraptured with seemingly petty arguments, making subtle distinctions between words rather than contributing to the common good.
But for Vincent Mulier, philosophy underlies and supports his interest in the political system. Mulier is a part-time philosophy professor at Portland State University and a criminal defense attorney in Eugene. He is also the Executive Director of the newly-launched non-profit organization Celilo Falls Restoration Fund, which he describes as “a fisheries advocacy organization.” Mulier has recently entered into politics, having decided to run for the Position 7 Circuit Court Judgeship.
Race for the Circuit Court
It is not often that you hear many stories about candidates for a position like a Circuit Court Judge. But the race for Position 7’s Circuit Court judgeship has received significant media attention due to its odd nature: all candidates will be write-in candidates. The incumbent, Jay McAlpin, was appointed to the position last May by Governor John Kitzhaber. But McAlpin failed to file the necessary documents for his name to appear on the November 6 ballot. This was partially due to a clerical error by the state elections office that incorrectly listed the race as Lake County rather than Lane County. McAlpin has taken the responsibility for the error but it has created a flurry of political happenings.
Normally Circuit Court judges go unchallenged for re-election. But in this case, since McAlpin failed to file the documents, no name will appear on the ballot for Position 7’s Circuit Court judgeship. This means that McAlpin had to run a write-in campaign to retain his position. This opened the door for a number of other candidates to run their own write-in campaigns. Now four other candidates are running campaigns against McAlpin — the fifth candidate announced his intentions yesterday.
McAlpin, the incumbent, has a J.D. from Willamette University College of Law and has served as Assistant District Attorney for Lane County. McAlpin received the endorsement of the Register Guard. The other candidates include: Alan Leiman (who just received the endorsement of the Eugene Weekly), chief city prosecutor for the city of Eugene for three years and a public defender in Miama, Florida for four years; Chris Bevans, who also has a J.D. from Willamette University College of Law and is a family and general law practitioner in Eugene; most recently, George Derr, a University of Oregon Law School graduate and a local civil and criminal defense lawyer; and, of course, Mulier.
Philosophy and Politics
Mulier stand out from this crowd for two reasons. First, Mulier had no initial intention of running for the judgeship position. Mulier merely had plans for yoga. In fact, Mulier had not even read about the available position when the Register Guard first broke the story about McAlpin failing to file. But his yoga teacher had the news article. So when Mulier went to a yoga class one day, his teacher said, “Hey, I got a job for you!” Mulier says,
“[My yoga teacher] mentioned that this judge neglected to file his paperwork. He kept bringing it up. After class, I couldn’t get the idea out of my mind. I began seeing it as a unique opportunity for someone such as myself, with my background and my progressive values. It’s a unique opportunity to win a position without running an extensive, expensive political campaign and I wouldn’t have to put myself in a big, bright spotlight.”
The second distinguishing mark of Mulier is his background in philosophy. He identifies himself as a philosopher professor, not a politician. He has no further political ambitions after this campaign. Mulier states,
“I would not take any other political office other than this judgeship. I am not interested in the executive or legislative branch. I am a reluctant candidate. I identify first and foremost as a professor of philosophy. I wear the hat of a defense attorney as well and that is important as well. It also reflects my values.”
Mulier’s values — which are a direct result of his experience as a philosophy teacher — are the motivating factor for his campaign. He sees the judgeship position as a way to defend those who often do not have a voice and to stand up for the oppressed. Mulier explains,
“I would very much like to be in a position where I can protect the rights of individuals against the powers of corporations and the powers of the state. We live in a time when the power of the state, government, and corporations is too high. I would like to eventually find myself in a situation where I can be a voice on behalf of the rights of the common person. I thought this might be good place to begin doing that.”
Values and Activism as a Judge
Mulier wastes no words in affirming that he has a strong sense of progressive ethics and that he would not hesitate to bring that ethical system to play in the courtroom. He says he has spent significant time developing his ethical system and believes they need to be applied to the law:
“I would certainly bring my values to the bench and to the court. I think they are underrepresented. I don’t like to talk about myself but I have spent a lot of time developing my values as a philosophy and ethics professor. Judges can address that.”
Mulier takes issue with the idea that philosophy cannot be practical or applicable to a civil society. For him, his experience with philosophy has only enriched his understanding of the world and the way that civil servants should behave. Mulier says,
“I think the experience in philosophy and ethics will bring something important to my work as a judge. If I have a deep and sophisticated understanding of the basis of human rights and the value and dignity of not only human life but all life, that’s something that’s going to inform my work as a judge. And it is currently missing from the court.”
When a candidate talks about bringing his or her values into the world of politics, especially judgeship, people can often worry that the candidate might become an “activist,” or “activist judge” in this case. While Mulier emphasizes that he would bring his values to play in the courtroom, he also emphasizes that he would not be an “activist judge,” someone who disregards the law in favor of personal bias. Mulier says,
“I wouldn’t be an activist judge but my values would be evident in court. People are electing me based on my values. What would make me happiest, is not being elected, but being elected based on the progressive strength in Lane County, the strength of my people.”
Differences in Judging Philosophies
Mulier has striven to distinguish himself from the other candidates during this race by emphasizing his unity with Lane County through this “progressive strength.” He initially focused on McAlpin at the beginning, as that was his only opponent. Concerning McAlpin, Mulier says,
“There’s a stark contrast between his background and my background. He represents insurance companies. I represent progressive values.”
He later expanded his focus to other candidates, trying to paint a picture of himself as not only progressive, but a political outsider. He says,
“I am the progressive outsider in this race. Leiman and McAlpin are both establishment candidates. All three of us are qualified. We have all represented hundreds of clients and conducted numerous trials. All of us have the basic skills to run a courtroom. Voters are interested in more than just basic competence. Once they are assured that a candidate has the intelligence, temperament, and experience to run a courtroom, they take a look at the candidate’s values. I am the only candidate in the race who is a genuine, progressive, green, anti-establishment outsider. Lane County voters want a person with these values on the bench.”
Not everyone in the race agrees with Mulier about bringing progressive values to the courtroom, however. Leiman, one of Mulier’s opponents, believes that being “progressive” ought not be a deciding factor in picking a judge. Leiman says,
“My position is very different from Dr. Mulier. My approach to the position is to work hard, to folow the law, to be impartial, and to give everyone a fair shot in the courtroom. And that’s where I’ve been as both a prosecutor and defender. I’ve been in jail cells talking to people for hours. There are a lot of people-skills required and I work hard to earn the respect of the bench and the bar. It has nothing to do with progressive values. That’s irrelevant.”
But Leiman also stresses that values are important in a judgeship position. Leiman says,
“I have a strong sense of morality and I bring my life experience of working with both disadvantaged and the advantaged. I bring all that experience into a job that is defined as a non-partisan application of the law. You bring all your experience and your character to that. People that know me from court, know that I take a lot of time with people. Very important things are happening to that person in front of you in your courtroom. You must be fair.”
Why Do Judges Matter?
With five candidates now running for Position 7’s Circuit Court judgeship, voters might wonder — why does this position even matter? In today’s world of significant political apathy, the question is important. Some people might not even know what a Circuit Court judge does. Mulier speaks to that issue:
“Judges have to daily make findings and make sentencing decisions. Voters should care about what kind of judge they are going to put in the position of making custody decisions, to make decisions of guilt or innocence. And lawyers should care whether or not the judge on the bench is more or less likely to take the position of the common person and to be sympathetic to the common person. Voters should care that judges from a corporate background will be more inclined towards the point of view of a big corporation against the little guy. It’s important to have a judge in there that’s not already predisposed or has favoritism towards corporations. Judges’ decisions, even on a circuit court level, are very consequential on a daily basis.”
Leiman agrees with Mulier on the importance of the judgeship position. Leiman says,
“It matters a lot. It matters to all the people that are there for their important life events, whether it is a divorce or a criminal matter. The lawyers and judges are there everyday. But for the people walking into the courthouse, that might be the most significant event in their lives. It’s the front line of justice and for many it is the only line of justice. Appeals are difficult and expensive so you need to get it right the first time.”
For his part, Mulier is hoping to connect with the diversity of people in Lane County and use his philosophy experience to make a stand in politics. He does not want to be a philosopher king, but for him, a philosopher judge suffices. He hopes his base of supporters can help him win this November 6. Mulier says,
“I appeal to young people, students, social justice activists, environmentalists, labor rights activists, reproductive choice activists, and LGBTQ rights activists. These people are my base. I am one of them and I will bring their values to the bench.”
For more information about the Lane County Circuit Court, visit the Court website. For more information about Vincent Mulier’s campaign for the Lane County Circuit Court judgeship, visit his campaign website at http://www.mulier4judge.org/. Other candidates’ campaign websites are: Alan Leiman, http://www.facebook.com/writeinalanleiman; Jay McAlpin, https://www.facebook.com/JudgeJayMcAlpin; Chris Bevans, http://write-inchrisbevans.blogspot.com/. George Derr does not have a campaign website yet but you can find his law practice website at http://www.gderrlaw.com/.