Oregon State Bar Bulletin — APRIL 2006

Profiles in the Law
By Day and by Night
By Melody Finnemore

“I try to treat [the] court … with the hope that people sitting in the courtroom will learn from other people’s mistakes.”

By day, Multnomah County Circuit Court Referee Terry Hannon works in downtown Portland, alternating every couple of years between the county’s landlord/tenant court and traffic trials. Fresh off a stint in landlord/tenant court, Hannon, 67, says he handled about 800 cases a month. The majority of people appearing before him – 90 percent of the landlords and their tenants – chose to represent themselves.

"It’s just a beehive there," he says. "You’ve got to be quick and process people efficiently and make decisions on the fly."

After his mornings downtown Hannon takes what he calls a "four-hour lunch hour," during which he walks three miles each day. The break also gives him time to write for an investment newsletter called "The Turtle and the Rabbit" Hannon established with his oldest son, Mike, an investment advisor and actor in Los Angeles.

By night, Hannon oversees Multnomah County’s only night court. He handles all traffic, alcohol and other citations issued within the county east of 122nd Avenue. At an average of 50 cases each weeknight, he estimates he’s arraigned at least 60,000 people since the night court opened in 2001.

Born in Portland and raised in Klamath Falls, Hannon hardly anticipated ever sitting on the bench. He earned an undergraduate degree in business administration at the University of Oregon. Hannon then worked as an investment officer and vice president at First National Bank during the day and attended evening law classes at Lewis & Clark College.

"Our entire class was working during the day and going to law school at night. It was a long four years," he says.

He graduated with his law degree in 1968 and, in 1971, established a practice in Gresham. Hannon’s work ranged from business law and wrongful death cases to initiating Oregon’s dram shop law. The law holds taverns and other establishments liable for selling alcohol to minors or intoxicated people who kill or injure others in alcohol-related accidents.

"When you practice in a small town like Gresham, you pretty much specialize in whatever your clients need" he says, adding he especially enjoyed being a trial lawyer. "It was fun to do, and I was good at it. You’re on stage all the time and it really helps if you’re right. I think that’s part of why I like being a judge – I’m on stage all the time."

In 1981, Hannon closed his practice to work as in-house counsel for an investment advisor. Five years ago, he filled his first judgeship as Tillamook County’s justice of the peace. The previous J.P. quit to join the Peace Corps, so Hannon stepped in for a very short-lived term.

"I hadn’t even thought about being a judge, but I owned a business there at the time," he says. "I applied and the governor appointed me, but I promptly lost in an election four months later."

Multnomah County Presiding Circuit Court Judge Jim Ellis learned that Hannon hadn’t won re-election and asked him to preside over Gresham’s night court. Hannon, who celebrated his five-year anniversary there Feb. 1, says he views each case as an opportunity to strengthen the community.

"As a judge, in a lot of respects you are the conscience of the community," he says. "I try to treat that court like Judge Terry’s Traffic School with the hope that people sitting in the courtroom will learn from other people’s mistakes."

As Gresham’s Hispanic population began to grow, Hannon noticed an increasing number of Spanish-speaking people pass through his court for traffic violations. Hannon contacted a Spanish-speaking driving instructor and initiated weekend classes that he offers as an alternative to paying traffic fines. At $145, the classes are much less expensive than the hefty traffic violation fines and probably do more to improve traffic safety."

Gresham’s night court has become increasingly important for Multnomah County. Its hours of service quickly expanded from one day a week to five in order to handle East County’s caseload. Hannon says he expects the court to become even busier as the area’s population continues to boom.

The county is in the process of building a new justice center in Gresham, an area that includes about 150,000 people, Hannon says. "Eventually you’ll see a full-service court in east Multnomah County."

Of the courts he oversees, Hannon is partial to landlord/tenant court, despite a caseload that grows even heavier during tough economic times as more people struggle to pay their rent.

"Landlord/tenant court is by far the hardest, the biggest challenge, and it’s probably still my favorite," he says. "It’s not a pleasant court – you’ve got a lot of unhappy people dealing with some very serious money issues."

With a pair of signature red glasses and a multifaceted caseload in hand, Hannon is prepared for whatever new challenges may arise.

Melody Finnemore is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.

© 2006 Melody Finnemore

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