|Oregon State Bar Bulletin OCTOBER 2009|
Lawyer-Journalist Janine Robben Leads New Rights Center
By Cliff Collins
Oregon State Bar Bulletin readers are familiar with Janine Robben, a prolific freelance contributor since 2004, who also at various times has worked as a newspaper reporter and editor, a prosecutor and an attorney in sole practice.
Now Robben is stepping into a brand-new role: as director of the Oregon Crime Victims Law Center. She will provide no-cost legal support for victims who are in a criminal court proceeding in federal, tribal, state or municipal courts. “We will work with them to help them assert their rights,” says Robben, who started work in August.
The new center is a nonprofit organization that advocates for victims within the criminal-justice system and directs them to social-support services, including those they may need in order to testify effectively and to recover from victimization.
Began as a Journalist
Robben, a Spokane native, received a bachelor of arts in communications, with distinction, from the Edward R. Murrow School of Communication at Washington State University. She then worked for six years as a reporter and section editor for several Willamette Valley newspapers.
Her next move was to obtain a law degree, starting at the University of Oregon and finishing at Lewis & Clark Law School. She points out that she grew up with no attorneys in the family, and knew none, but such a career path for her was “obvious to everybody but me.” For example, she had served as a draft counselor during the Vietnam War, was a champion debater, and twice had threatened to sue WSU for discrimination.
She ignored warnings not to take outside jobs during her first year in law school, working nights at the Register-Guard in Eugene. “It was really hard,” she admits.
Robben served in the Clackamas County district attorney’s office, first as a law clerk prosecuting felony sex crimes under the supervision of a deputy district attorney. She worked in the DA’s office full time during her final 18 months in law school.
She had gone to law school intending to remain a reporter, but then got interested in becoming a prosecutor after covering a particularly heinous trial in Eugene while working at the Register-Guard. Early on, she helped prosecute two egregious cases involving sexual assault against children.
Peter K. Glazer, now a Lake Oswego attorney, was working in the Clackamas County DA’s office at the same time as Robben was there. While she was a law clerk, the two won a case that was considered “unwinnable,” he remembers. In their next case, she gave the first closing argument. “She did a great job,” he says. “I had tons of confidence in her.”
After she married a firefighter, Mark Robben, who had custody of three children, ages 6, 7 and 8 — whom the couple began raising together and who were in the general age range of most of her clients — she increasingly found such emotional work more difficult. She switched to prosecuting homicides, but found she didn’t have a niche anymore.
Robben next applied for and was hired for the job of setting up a Medicaid fraud unit with the Oregon Department of Justice. As a senior assistant attorney general, she spent 14 years there, the first 10 as director, establishing a unit with a national reputation for aggressive criminal prosecution of health-care service providers who defraud Medicaid or other insurance programs or commit crimes against residents of health-care facilities.
At the end of 2000, she decided to make another career move. “I was going to turn 50 in February 2001,” Robben says. “Our children were on their own. I had always intended to return to journalism.”
She asked around and heard that a new paper, the Portland Tribune, was starting up and needed a features editor. She landed the job, but at the first opportunity, moved to the news department, where she covered — you guessed it — crime and courts and other legal-related topics. During her four-year tenure before that paper’s first wave of layoffs took her with it in 2004, Robben reported on highly publicized cases including the murder of a University of Portland student and the Ward Weaver and “Portland Seven” cases.
After she lost her job, Robben began freelance writing and, in November 2005, established a sole practice to resume practicing law while continuing to write, primarily for the Bulletin.
Starting an Oregon Center
Until this year, the National Crime Victim Law Institute, although it originated at Lewis & Clark Law School a decade ago and is based in Portland, was unable to fund and establish an Oregon center, owing to this state’s “toothless” victims’ rights law, says Meg Garvin, executive director. States’ laws must be “substantially equivalent to federal law” in order to qualify, and Oregon’s were not, she says.
In August, the institute was able to fund an Oregon center to the tune of a $100,000, one-year grant, following two major developments related to victims of crime: the public’s May 2008 approval of amendments to the Oregon Constitution making crime victims’ constitutional rights judicially enforceable, and the 2009 Oregon Legislature’s enactment of a law (Senate Bill 233) detailing the procedures for victims’ rights compliance and enforcement.
The grant allowed Oregon to join 11 other law centers supported by the institute.
The Oregon Crime Victims Law Center Robben now heads is part of a national effort to create a national network of free legal services for crime victims. Victim law is “still a new field of law,” explains Garvin. The 11 centers support one another by working collaboratively and sharing “lessons learned,” she says.
According to Garvin and Glazer, Oregon was fortunate to land Robben for the post, given her experience in the state and in the criminal justice system. Former Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers, who serves as president of the board of directors of the new center, calls Robben “a hard-working, intelligent, capable lawyer” who “has a very high interest in crime victims’ rights.” Although he recused himself from the selection process for Robben’s position, owing to her previous service with the Department of Justice under his leadership, Myers says, “I was absolutely delighted to find out she was in the candidate mix.”
Robben’s center is seeking victims in need of representation, particularly those whose rights have been violated, who have complex needs or whose cases involve novel legal or factual issues.
The center also is looking for lawyers and law students to help provide services to victims statewide. Retired or former prosecutors who want to continue to play a vital role in the criminal justice system, and lawyers in areas outside of the Willamette Valley, are particularly needed, she says.
Robben hopes to return sometime next year as a contributor to the Bulletin, but she is placing top priority on her part-time position getting the center going.
She attributes her motivation to two influences. “I personally know people who’ve been victims of serious crimes, and what they’ve been through,” she says. In addition, she shares with other present or former prosecutors “a strong sense of justice, and who often think, ‘This isn’t fair.’ Life should be fair.”
Of her continuing in the struggle to support victims, Robben says simply, “It’s where I’m meant to be.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cliff Collins is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.
© 2009 Cliff Collins