|Oregon State Bar Bulletin NOVEMBER 2008|
There aren’t many people who could look at a Harley Davidson motorcycle and imagine ways to make it better, but Lynn Ashcroft is one of them. When the Marion County Circuit Court judge and a friend bought Harleys several years ago, it inspired Ashcroft to begin custom designing and building motorcycles.
A self-confessed gearhead with obsessive-compulsive tendencies, Ashcroft discovered his affinity for designing motorcycles in an everlasting effort to keep busy. He already was respected for his woodwork, which includes a handcrafted, shaker-style conference table and several oak desks and chairs in his Salem law office. He’s also made furniture for some of his colleagues.
In 1995, he opened Ashcroft Motorcycles in Salem. The shop employs half a dozen workers who do the paint and bodywork, while Ashcroft does the design and much of the fabrication work. Each year, Ashcroft produces a number of full custom motorcycles as well as hot rods that have been featured in videos and on TV as well as in national and international publications such as Robb Report, MotorCycling, Stuff and Easyriders.
Ashcroft’s creations also have been displayed in museums and even aboard the Queen Mary ship. His customers range from riders and enthusiasts in most of the western United States to a contractor in Iraq who bought an Ashcroft creation he saw in a magazine. Perhaps his most famous customer is "CSI" actor Gary Dourdan, who purchased a model called the "Evil Bastard," which won Best of Show at an Easyrider show, for $48,000.
From designing award-winning, custom motorcycles to retiring from the Oregon Army National Guard as a brigadier general to his recent appointment as a Marion County judge, it’s been an exhilarating ride for Ashcroft. However, he didn’t plan to sit on the bench — or even become a lawyer. The Pendleton native’s first love is history, and his early career plans involved a management position with a national retail chain.
"I grew up in a fairly small community and college — not only within my family but in the community — was nice to have but wasn’t really expected," he says. "Coming out of high school, you could either go to work on a farm, drive a truck or go to college."
Inspired by a high school history teacher, Ashcroft enrolled as a history major at Brigham Young University. At just 19, he withdrew from college to enlist in the military. The Vietnam War raged overseas and Ashcroft wanted to avoid being drafted so he could somewhat control his options.
"Joining the military, other than being a dad, is the best thing I ever did," Ashcroft says.
By 1971, he was a commissioned lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Ashcroft’s active duty with the United States Army, and reserve duty with the Army National Guard and Army Reserve, included assignments with I CORPS, the 91st Infantry Division, 116th and 163rd Armored Cavalry Regiments, the 41st Infantry Brigade, and various other military commands. These included temporary duties with the 1st Special Forces, 19th Special Forces Group (Airborne) of the Utah National Guard, and as an active duty advisor to 2nd Battalion, 75th Rangers, with duties and service performed both within the U.S. and overseas. Ashcroft concluded his military career as a brigadier general in command of the Oregon State Defense Force.
After completing his initial active duty tour, Ashcroft worked in retail for major national department store chains, including Macy’s group, in management and as a buyer. Oddly enough, it was his goal to obtain an upper management position with the chain that led Ashcroft to pursue a law degree.
"Their top management all had law degrees or MBAs, so I really went to law school not necessarily to become a lawyer but to be in a top management position for Macy’s or something like that," he says.
Ashcroft returned to college to finish his undergrad degree in history. However, because he had withdrawn to join the military — and possibly had what he called too much "recreation time" — he received a slate of low grades as a consequence. Ashcroft made up for his .7 grade point average during his last two years of undergrad studies and, ultimately, was accepted to study law at the University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento.
Ashcroft earned his law degree in 1979 and launched his legal career as a military prosecutor where, ranked as a senior captain near the top of the pay scale, he cut his teeth in an aggressive environment.
"I chose the military because I knew I would be able to get lots of trial experience there," Ashcroft says, noting he prosecuted for three brigades representing about 10,000 soldiers. "For any crime that was committed by any soldier in that command, I was the prosecutor for it. Whether it was a murder case or an AWOL case, and whether it was committed in the United States or overseas, it fell into my charge.
"You got in with both feet early on, and the trial scheduling was very expeditious. It was not unusual for a prosecutor to try two or three cases a week to a jury," he adds.
After his military career, Ashcroft went into private practice with Rhoten, Rhoten Speerstra. He admits he had some initial misgivings about joining the venerable Salem firm because of the advanced age of its partners. He quickly discovered, however, that the colleagues he would later join as a partner were among the most honorable people he had ever met.
"I had an incredible opportunity and it wasn’t because of my personality or strengths, but because I worked with some lawyers who had the experience and gave me the opportunity," he says.
Ashcroft became a partner with the firm, and continued to work there with fellow partner Sarah Reinhart after the three senior partners retired. Ashcroft and Reinhart eventually formed Ashcroft and Rinehart LLP, where his practice was primarily insurance defense, complex litigation and business law, and Reinhart practiced probate and estate.
After practicing together for a number of years, substantive differences in their practices led Ashcroft and Reinhart to dissolve their partnership. Ashcroft then partnered with a friend from the armed forces, David Wiles.
In addition to his role as managing partner of Ashcroft Wiles, Ashcroft began serving as a Marion County pro tem judge in 2004. Then in May 2008, Gov. Ted Kulongoski appointed him to fill the vacancy created by Judge Terry Leggert’s retirement in Marion County. Along with criminal cases, Ashcroft has taken on civil, domestic and juvenile cases through the retirement of another judge and the succession of a new presiding judge.
His first few months on the Marion County bench have shown Ashcroft that it’s one of the most rewarding, albeit toughest, jobs he’s ever done.
"As a lawyer we sit out there and look at judges and think, ‘He’s got it easy, he gets to control everything,’ and to an extent that’s true," Ashcroft says. "As a judge, though, the hardest thing for me to do is keep from worrying about the consequences of what I do, and whether I made the ‘right’ decision. Sometimes it’s very hard to decide these cases and make the decision in such a way that it complies with the law and serves the interests of justice, but also resolves the issues."
A recent sex abuse case involving juveniles is a prime example. "I found both sides to be very believable, and the decision I made is going to affect both of those children for the rest of their lives," he says. "That’s very difficult. I will do it, but I don’t always like the decisions I have to make. Neither judges nor attorneys make the facts."
Ashcroft strives to treat everyone — whether they are the plaintiffs, defendants or the attorneys representing them — equally and with respect.
"As a judge, it’s my role to be fair and impartial and, in particular areas like juvenile and criminal law, I feel that as an individual I can make a difference in our society," he says. "It’s not just a matter of processing the numbers, but of doing your best to do the right thing and the legal thing that will benefit the individuals and the rest of us. At the end of the day, it’s about whether I did the right thing and made things better."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melody Finnemore is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.