Washington, Clackamas counties await action on new judges

Washington County and Clackamas County each would get one new judge under pending legislation — but it will be up to the Oregon Legislature’s budget writers to decide whether they and Jackson County will get state money for them.

Additional judges were proposed in the 2023 session — in fact, two for Washington County, and seven overall — but the positions were not funded.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has cleared legislation (Senate Bill 1541) for the three positions. The new judgeships are proposed to start July 1 for Washington and Jackson counties, and Jan. 1, 2025, for Clackamas County. The bill went to the Legislature’s joint budget committee, which has a long list of spending requests for mid-term adjustments to the two-year state budget.

The judgeship requests last year and this year were from Meagan Flynn, who as Oregon Supreme Court chief justice also leads the Oregon Judicial Department.

There was no written opposition — and only support in oral testimony — during a committee hearing on Tuesday, Feb. 6.

Board Chair Kathryn Harrington led a list of Washington County supporters.

“People who seek justice through our court system wait for far too long for their cases to be heard,” she told committee members via video testimony.

“When our residents are finally able to have their cases brought before a judge, the judge frequently is not able to give an appropriate amount of time for their cases because of their overwhelming caseloads, putting them under immense pressure to process cases as quickly as possible. I want to be clear that this one additional judicial officer will not fully address the severe shortage we face right now.”

Washington County now has 15 circuit court judges. A workload study by the National Center for State Courts — commissioned by the state — said the county could justify four new judgeships, not just the one or two proposed to lawmakers during the current two-year legislative cycle.

“When Washington County has 15 minutes to spend on a matter that would receive an hour or more of court time in neighboring counties, there is something horribly wrong,” Rebecca Guptill, the current presiding judge, said in a statement filed with the committee. “This is where we find ourselves daily.

“It is unfair to all the people who come to our court seeking justice and a court resolution of their matters. It has come to the point where certain civil and probate litigants are purposely filing their matters in other court jurisdictions to avoid the delays they would otherwise face in Washington County.”

A similar argument was made in person by Michael Wetzel, the current presiding judge in Clackamas County, where there are now 11 judges. The National Center for State Courts workload study also said Clackamas County could use four more judges. 

“We do not have enough judges to meet our community’s demand for justice,” Wetzel told the committee. “To minimize delays in case processing because of our limited number of judges, it is common for a case to be handled by different judges at different decision points in the case, rather than by one judge from start to finish. This can create confusion and frustration for court participants and can diminish judicial understanding of nuanced situations.”

The Washington County request drew a slew of supporting written statements from District Attorney Kevin Barton; Nate Gaoiran, director of community corrections; Detective Amanda Pickar of the Beaverton Police Department; Rachel Schutz, executive director of the Family Justice Center, based in Beaverton; Deanna Palm, president of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce based in Hillsboro; Melissa Laird, a member of the county Public Safety Coordinating Council, and Susan Pozdena, a resident.

Funding involves not only the salary of a judge but also the staff.

Under a 1981 law that took effect in 1983, the state assumed trial court operations in Oregon’s 36 counties, including all staffing — the judges themselves already were state employees, though they are elected locally — and the counties continue to provide space and security. The state started a program more than a decade ago to split construction and major remodeling costs with counties.

Multnomah County completed a new courthouse in downtown Portland in 2020.

Clackamas County broke ground a year ago on a new courthouse on the Red Soils campus in Oregon City. Its current courthouse in downtown Oregon City was opened in 1937, cannot accommodate any more judges, and is likely to fall into the Willamette River if there is a severe subduction-zone earthquake off Oregon’s coast. The new courthouse is scheduled for completion in mid-2025, though because the contract came in millions over the original price tag, the state and the county will have to come up with the difference by then for the public-private partnership project — the first of its kind in Oregon.

Washington County is seeking $1.25 million in state planning money for a new courthouse in downtown Hillsboro. If lawmakers approve the request for a single new judge, that courtroom would be created at the Law Enforcement Center in Hillsboro, which houses the jail and the sheriff’s office. That building was opened in 1998.



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