Kate Brown was on the job as Oregon’s governor for just a week in 2015 when she posted an opening for a state judge.
Three months later, she named a prosecutor to be a Lane County Circuit Court judge.
Now, seven years later, Brown has made her 100th appointment to Oregon courts.
Her influence on the judicial system will last far beyond her time in office, which ends next January.
She has named most of the justices on the Oregon Supreme Court.
Nine of the 13 judges on the Oregon Court of Appeals are her appointees.
Her appointments leave the state’s court system more diverse.
The judges she has appointed at the circuit court level deal with everything from divorces to business disputes to murder prosecutions. They work out of the courtroom as mediators and negotiators. They preside in courthouses in every county seat in Oregon.
“This is one of the most important constitutional responsibilities of the governor,” Brown said in an interview with the Capital Chronicle.
She has established an elaborate process for picking judges.
A 10-page application form is the starting point. Besides the typical work and school history, Brown asks for the names of opposing lawyers that potential appointees have faced in the courtroom. She also wants the names of judges who have seen the candidates in the courtroom.
The number of applicants for a circuit court opening varies, but roughly average 10 to 15. Smaller counties usually draw two to four and Multnomah County openings in Portland can draw up to 30 applicants.
Brown’s staff consults judges serving in the county where there is an opening, getting a sense of what experience is needed. The vetting process also includes talks with local officials and sometimes a review by the local bar association.
“It did add more process, but extensive vetting and including more voices in the selection process is healthy,” according to an emailed statement from Kamron Graham, a Portland attorney and president of the Oregon State Bar.
A panel of the governor’s lawyers and attorneys from the community conduct interviews, narrowing the field to two or three finalists. The Oregon State Police also conducts deep background investigations of the finalists.
When that work is done, Brown gets a notebook, sometimes 100 pages or more, with detailed information about each finalist. She then does her own interviews, typically lasting 15 minutes.
Brown, herself an attorney, drills deep into the notebook to question candidates.
The process to the final announcement takes about four months.
“I want to make sure there is a diversity of both professional backgrounds and experience,” Brown said.
She said she isn’t looking for a particular judicial philosophy, but empathy for Oregonians is key.
“What I hear from Oregonians about the judicial system is that they want to be heard, they want a judge who will listen to them,” Brown said.
Brown said life experiences are as important to her as legal knowledge.
“Their decisions have to reflect the communities they represent,” Brown said. “They have to be respectful of the people who live in those communities.”
She is alert to the impact on criminal justice.
“I want to make sure that I am appointing judges who understand the disparate impact that our criminal justice system has had on people of color and people of low incomes,” the governor said.
She noted that in family court cases, many people represent themselves, requiring fair treatment by judges.
“Studies have shown that parties who believe the process was fair – regardless of whether they prevailed – have greater trust in the justice system,” said Graham, the bar association president.
In interviews, Brown asks judges about the current discussions around racial justice. She quizzes applicants on what role they see for the courts in addressing that issue.
Brown is particularly proud of the diversity she has added to the court.
She noted that when she got out of law school in 1985, the Oregon Supreme Court included just one woman – Betty Roberts.
“In my entire professional career, there were never more than two women on the Oregon Supreme Court,” Brown said.
Now, four of the seven justices are women, and that was up to five until the retirement in December of Justice Lynn Nakamoto. Brown appointed her in 2016 and recently filled the vacancy by appointing Roger DeHoog, who she had previously appointed to the Court of Appeals in 2016.
Brown also appointed the first Black to the court – Adrienne Nelson in 2018.
Balance, not quotas
“We are getting closer to a judiciary that better reflects the community,” said Graham. “This too is healthy and a goal that the Oregon State Bar supports.”
The governor’s first appointment was a woman. She named Karrie McIntyre, a former county prosecutor and civil attorney in Eugene, to be a Lane County Circuit Court judge.
“The citizens of Lane County will benefit from her passionate commitment to ensuring equal justice to all litigants,” Brown said in her May 15, 2015, announcement.
Almost exactly seven years later, Brown made appointment No. 100, naming Jacqueline Alarcón as a Multnomah County Circuit Court judge.
Alarcón was born in Los Angeles but grew up through high school in El Salvador. She has practiced family law since getting her law degree from Willamette University. She is currently president of the Multnomah Bar Association and Oregon Women Lawyers and is on the board of Basic Rights Oregon and Familias en Acción.
“Jackie Alarcón’s professional and lived experiences, paired with her commitment to lifting up the underserved in our community, make her an ideal addition to the Multnomah County family law bench,” Brown said in her announcement.
Brown has no quotas. She noted that four of five judges in the Linn County Circuit Court are men. While she would like more gender balance, to fill a recent vacancy she appointed what she described as “an incredibly qualified man,” naming Keith Stein in January.
At the federal level, appointments have become intensely political, generating concerns about “packing” the U.S. Supreme Court with ideological choices. Brown said Oregon guards against that.
“I don’t see this process getting political the way federal appointments do,” she said, noting that Oregon judges have to stand for election.
She said the elaborate process she has in place to get a good sense of how a community assesses a candidate is important as well. That provides transparency, she said.
Brown said she would advise the next governor to understand that the appointment of judges will be one of the longest-lasting impacts of their service.
As for Brown, she has no interest in putting on a judge’s robe after she leaves office.
“I don’t think that’s a good fit for my personality or skill set,” Brown said.
Oregon Capital Chronicle
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