Oregon State Bar Bulletin — MAY 2012



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Implementing Oregon e-Court, Securing Adequate Funding Among Balmer’s Top Goals


On the January weekend it was announced that Supreme Court Associate Justice Tom Balmer had been elected as the court’s next chief justice, Balmer was preparing for the new job as he had many times over the past 18 years: He was serving as an overnight volunteer at the Goose Hollow Family Shelter in downtown Portland.

The work is important to Balmer because of his belief in public service, but also because it brings to life the role of the justice system in helping people resolve conflicts and move on with their lives.

“I encounter people who have been evicted from their homes, who are dealing with minor criminal charges, people who have suffered family abuse and obtained restraining orders. You get a down-to-earth sense that having an accessible court system where people are treated equally and fairly is very important to them and how their lives are going to play out,” he explains. As a judge, “You have to remember the diversity of individual circumstances and the kinds of entities that come before the courts. You see entities in a law firm; you see individuals in a homeless shelter.”

Putting a face on an underfunded justice system is possibly the toughest challenge greeting the newly elected chief justice as he takes office this month. Balmer, a justice on the Oregon Supreme Court since his appointment by Gov. John Kitzhaber in 2001, replaces retiring Chief Justice Paul De Muniz.

As the chief executive for the Oregon Judicial Department, Balmer will oversee a court system of 191 independently elected state judges, 1,516 non-judge employees and a biennial budget of approximately $424 million. At the same time, he’ll be presiding over a system weathering a decade-old financial crisis that has introduced staff cuts and furlough days, reduced courthouse hours, an omnivorous criminal docket, a neglected civil docket, and serious delays into Oregon’s court system.

Constitution Mandates a Functioning Judiciary
“The Oregon legislature has taken funds that used to be dedicated to court functions, Legal Aid and other related programs and directed them into the General Fund. Once it’s in the General Fund, there are many other, more powerful interests competing for the money,” he says. With visible and vocal advocates for healthcare reform and education competing for the same dollars, the courts always seem to place last in the budget race. The Judicial Department budget was among the last few approved in 2011.

“We need to continuously remind the Legislature that the work we do — providing timely access to justice, enforcing criminal laws and peacefully resolving disputes — is a core function of government,” Balmer says. “It’s important that the Legislature provide the resources to allow the judiciary to fulfill this core function that we’re assigned by the constitution.”

Retiring Chief Justice De Muniz is widely hailed for his leadership in keeping the state’s courthouse doors open. He initiated the Court Re-Engineering and Efficiency Work Group (CREW) to examine and implement efficiencies and best practices throughout the Oregon Judicial Department. He also initiated Oregon e-Court, the much anticipated “electronic courthouse” that will replace the Oregon Judicial Information Network and play a key role in increasing the public’s access to the courts.

Balmer is enthusiastic about continuing these programs. Since his election as chief justice, he and De Muniz have tag-teamed around the state and in meetings with the Legislature. He is also visiting and serving briefly on the benches of some of the state’s circuit courts to better understand the needs of and demands upon the local courts.

De Muniz wants to ensure a smooth transition. He intentionally timed his retirement as chief justice for after the Legislature’s short February session so he could lead the judiciary’s legislative efforts while introducing Balmer to key players around the capitol.

Underfunding has Cuffed the Justice System
De Muniz’s efforts have brought results that Balmer intends to use as a springboard for further success. He points out an editorial from the New York Times last fall that mentioned Oregon and Massachusetts as two of the best run state court systems.

Still, underfunding of the courts has cuffed the justice system.

“Any time you come into a leadership role, the times affect what you can and have to do,” observes Ted Kulongoski, former Oregon governor, supreme court justice, attorney general and state legislator. “This is going to be a very challenging time for the judiciary, and one of the greatest challenges is financial.”

Balmer comes to the challenge with a strong blend of management, political, legal and human experience. His career spans 35 years, and has roots on the East and West Coasts. It encompasses private practice and public service and includes roles ranging from new associate to managing partner, federal antitrust lawyer to the second-in-command in the Oregon Attorney General’s office to publicly elected Oregon Supreme Court justice.

Balmer grew up in Portland, attended Portland public schools and graduated from Oberlin College in 1974 and the University of Chicago Law School in 1977. He started his career as an associate in a large Boston firm, spent a year as a litigation lawyer for the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., returned to private practice with a major Washington firm and finally came back to Portland in 1982. He joined Lindsay, Hart, Neil and Weigler, where he became a partner, continuing on as a partner with Ater Wynne LLP, which had since emerged from Lindsay Hart. Balmer took a break from private practice to serve as deputy attorney general to Ted Kulongoski from 1993 to 1997, then returned to Ater Wynne to serve as managing partner. He was appointed to the state supreme court in 2001, elected to the court in 2002 and re-elected in 2008.

Balmer sees his new role as an opportunity to blend his skills as justice, lawyer, communicator, problem solver and administrator with his desire to contribute to something bigger than himself. He was initially drawn to the law, he says, because “I liked the clients, liked the law, but I could also think about issues in a larger context. I’ve always enjoyed thinking about the connections between larger movements in history and the specific case I might be working on.”

“The Kind of Courage it Takes to Have the World Change”
Others see Balmer’s ascent to chief justice as a natural destination for a friend and colleague whom they view as unflappable, courageous, intellectual and just interesting to be around.

Susan Samuelson, professor of business law at Boston University School of Management, met Balmer in 1977 when they were first-year associates at Choate Hall & Stewart, a venerable Boston business law firm. Samuelson, Balmer and another associate became close friends. She was the only female in the trio.

“We were new associates who didn’t know anything about anything,” she recalls. “In that era there were no training programs and we were just trying to figure out how to get things done.” Tom was the source of camaraderie among associates, known for his sense of humor and ability to stay calm and defuse just about any situation.

At one point during that year, one of the senior partners invited Tom and the other male associate out to lunch. “What about Susan?” asked Tom. “She usually eats with us, too.” The partner explained that the invitation was to a men-only business club, so Susan couldn’t be included. Tom very nicely declined the invitation.

“It took a lot of courage for a first-year associate to turn down lunch with a senior partner,” says Samuelson. “That’s the kind of courage it takes to have the world change.”

Kulongoski, who appointed Balmer as his deputy attorney general in 1993, believes Balmer also has the people skills to affect change.

“Tom has a very intellectual side. He believes reasonable people can come together around the table and arrive at a reasonable solution,” notes Kulongoski. “Most all public officers, when elected, want to make things better for the public; they want to help people. But that desire conflicts with the greed and power of politics. How you balance that is difficult for anyone.

“Tom learned in the job (of deputy attorney general) how to deal with the conflict.”

Learning at the Knee of his Father
Kulongoski feels one has to acknowledge Balmer’s father, Don, in talking about the strengths of the son. Don Balmer was a long-time political science professor at Lewis & Clark College who used to bring his classes to the Legislature for field trips. He’d stop by then-state Sen. Kulongoski’s office to chat. It was through Don that Kulongoski met Tom.

“Don had a great sense of practical politics,” recalls Kulongoski. “He shaped Tom’s sense of public service and his understanding of the role of government.”

“I’ve been learning how to work effectively in a political system since I was eight or 10 years old,” admits the new chief justice. He had his first trip to the Oregon Legislature when he was seven or eight and recalls discussing politics and political issues at the dinner table with his father, mother, Betty, and three brothers, Paul, Andy and Dan. “We were raised with a sense that we ought to be informed about the greater community; we should be informed citizens.”

They were also raised with expectations of personal responsibility. “Although we were brought up in a politically involved, Democratic household in the ’60s, and had long hair, played in rock bands and published an underground newspaper, we were expected to do well in school, go to church and be respectful and kind to other people,” Balmer recalls.

“My parents did a good job of being part of the changes going on in the ’60s. They allowed the flexibility and experiences that were part of life at that time, but they also expected high standards of personal conduct and responsibility.”

During his investiture in 2001, Balmer acknowledged his parents’ influence on him and his brothers. “They taught us, as Socrates did his followers (but not quite so didactically), that the unexamined life is not worth living, but …that the over-examined life cannot be a full one; that we need to seek to understand ourselves and world, but also to live and act in the world.”

Politics and Public Service a Family Affair
Balmer and his wife of 27 years, Mary Louise McClintock, have passed these lessons on to their own two children who are now grown. Their daughter, Rebecca, recently finished serving in the Peace Corps in Mozambique; their son, Paul, a college senior, lived with a family in Amman, Jordan during the Arab Spring.

McClintock, director of Early Childhood Programs for the Oregon Community Foundation, contributes her own activism to the tradition of service. She helped found CourtCare in 2002, a Multnomah County Circuit Court program that provides child care service for children whose parents or caregivers may otherwise have difficulty participating in court proceedings. McClintock’s father was also a professor, but in history at Oregon State University.

“Politics and public service are a family affair in the Balmer household,” observes Kulongoski. “You have to look at the family on both sides to appreciate the strong history and dedication to public service.”

Balmer’s public service includes serving as board chair (2007 to 2009) and current board member with the Classroom Law Project, as well as board chair of Multnomah County Legal Aid Service, Inc., a predecessor of Legal Aid Services of Oregon. He is a member of the Visitors Committee of the University of Chicago Law School and the Advisory Committee of the Campaign for Equal Justice. Beyond the law, Balmer served as a founding board member of the Portland Parks Foundation and on the board of Chamber Music Northwest. He has also coached youth soccer and lacrosse teams, served on committees of the Portland City Club and been a citizen member of budget advisory committees for Metro and the City of Portland.

Courtroom Career Begins with a Loss
Steve Blackhurst, president of the Multnomah Bar Association and a partner with Ater Wynne, met Balmer when they worked together as associates at Lindsay Hart in the early 1980s. They discovered they had similar work experience in D.C., and shared a professional interest in litigation.

Blackhurst initiated Balmer into the firm by handing him a “dog” of a case that had been passed down to Blackhurst from a partner who had taken it as a favor to a referral source. Blackhurst rightly figured the case wasn’t winnable, but convinced Balmer it was a great one to take.

“This was his very first trial. He had just come from a big firm on the East Coast where a new associate never saw the inside of a courtroom,” Blackhurst says. Balmer was up against a very experienced trial lawyer. He did not win.

Blackhurst says he apologized to Balmer when he told this story at his investiture in 2001, then answers the unasked question: “There’s been no payback as far as I can tell.”

Blackhurst admires Balmer’s broad ranging interests, intellectual approach to the law and amazing network of friends. He recalls several years ago when Balmer introduced him to the writings of R.W. “Johnny” Apple, a former foreign correspondent for the New York Times who had shifted to writing about food and travel. After Balmer shared a column about a destination Blackhurst was planning to visit, Blackhurst became a Johnny Apple fan.

One day Blackhurst and Balmer were meeting for lunch and Balmer showed up with someone Blackhurst had never met. The woman worked for the Oregonian and, Balmer had discovered, had previously worked at the Times as the assistant to the revered Johnny Apple. The three of them spent the lunch hour sharing stories about the columnist and his writings. Thus began the annual tradition of the long Blackhurst/Balmer Johnny Apple lunch where conversation focuses on travel, food and politics.

“Tom’s extremely well read and knows all kinds of people in D.C., and Portland. He’s a terrific writer; he writes law review articles and editorials for the Oregonian. He just really has this wide-ranging set of interests that I wish more of us had,” Blackhurst says.

Concerns About Court System Form Lengthy List
On the January weekend it was announced that Supreme Court Associate Justice Tom Balmer had been elected as the court’s next chief justice, Balmer was preparing for the new job as he had many times over the past 18 years: He was serving as an overnight volunteer at the Goose Hollow Family Shelter in downtown Portland.

The work is important to Balmer because of his belief in public service, but also because it brings to life the role of the justice system in helping people resolve conflicts and move on with their lives.

“I encounter people who have been evicted from their homes, who are dealing with minor criminal charges, people who have suffered family abuse and obtained restraining orders. You get a down-to-earth sense that having an accessible court system where people are treated equally and fairly is very important to them and how their lives are going to play out,” he explains. As a judge, “You have to remember the diversity of individual circumstances and the kinds of entities that come before the courts. You see entities in a law firm; you see individuals in a homeless shelter.”

Putting a face on an underfunded justice system is possibly the toughest challenge greeting the newly elected chief justice as he takes office this month. Balmer, a justice on the Oregon Supreme Court since his appointment by Gov. John Kitzhaber in 2001, replaces retiring Chief Justice Paul De Muniz.

As the MBA president, Blackhurst is well aware of the funding needs for the courts. “A priority for us (in the Multnomah bar) has been getting a new downtown courthouse. It’s hard to imagine that the Oregon pioneers built this remarkable structure and now, in the 21st century, we can’t find enough money to upgrade and maintain the building so it can stay open.”

Maintaining the physical integrity of the state’s courthouses is one of many concerns colleagues tick off for the new chief justice. Blackhurst points out the desire within the bar for a thought-out funding plan for preserving the integrity of the courts rather than mobilizing only when in crisis.

De Muniz lists the need for the chief justice to “find a message that resonates with the public, maintain confidence and trust by the Legislature in the judicial branch and deal with the struggle for the courts to remain relevant.”

He also focuses on the “close connection between the free market system and a healthy judiciary.” De Muniz notes a recent speech by Vice President Joseph Biden that echoed a theme De Muniz has been sounding throughout his tenure. “We have to help the legislature understand the importance of the courts in the regulation of business and the support of economic development.”

“It’s the glue for the economic system,” adds Kulongoski. “If you can’t get business problems resolved, the system will come apart.” Kulongoski also cites the growing difficulty in attracting, electing and seating qualified judicial candidates and the strain on the courts that results from political polarization.

Balmer adds to the list. Funding for Legal Aid has been slashed which, when combined with issues that mushroom in a poor economy — debt collection, foreclosures and marriage dissolution — drives more and more people to represent themselves. The responsibility for educating them about court proceedings, legal issues and how to represent themselves increasingly falls to the underfunded courts.

“The courts play an absolutely critical role in our democracy — enforcing the laws we have agreed to live by, protecting the rights of citizens, deciding difficult issues from child custody to corporate liability to criminal sentences. We need smart, hard-working people and adequate resources to do that job effectively,” summarizes Balmer.

Balmer is characteristically optimistic about the work ahead. “When you sit down with people, whether citizens or legislators, and explain the role of the courts, the costs we’ve wrung out of the system, and the efficiencies we’ve implemented, people see that the courts do a respectable job,” he says. “We have a reservoir of good will. We just have to help the Legislature and the citizens understand the cost of a good court system.

“And the price of a bad one.”

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Karen McGlone is a freelance writer and marketing and communications consultant. She can be reached at kkmcglone@gmail.com.

© 2012 Karen McGlone


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