Oregon State Bar Bulletin — APRIL 2008
Profiles in the Law
Advocacy in Action
Judge Richard baron a Champion for Community On and Off the Bench
By Melody Finnemore

Richard Barron with his wife, Bonnie

Young people passing through juvenile court in Coos and Curry counties probably have little idea their biggest champion is the judge listening to the crimes they’ve committed and deciding their fate.

After nearly 30 years as presiding judge of the 15th Judicial District, Richard Barron has pretty much seen it all in his juvenile and family courts. While it would be easy to let cynicism taint the job after three decades, Barron still carries the same sense of optimism he brought to his work when former Gov. Vic Atiyeh swore him in on Feb. 29, 1980.

"I was the new judge and the new judge got the juvenile work. It quickly became something of interest because my sons at that time were about 14 and 11, so I was dealing with juveniles at home," Barron says. "When kids came to the court and I could see their eyes roll up to the heavens as I spoke I would tell them, ‘I see that at home.’ I also gained a much greater appreciation for my sons.

"It’s been the most rewarding work because families get put back together and kids, even though they’ve committed some crimes, get their lives straightened out. It’s great to see people go on and have good lives," he adds.

Barron, who graduated from Portland’s Madison High School in 1963, first considered becoming an attorney after taking a constitutional law course in college. He was pursuing his bachelor’s degree in political science at Portland State University when he was introduced to the intricacies of the law.

"I wrote a paper on Dred Scott and it was just fascinating to go over the opinions of the lawyers, learn about the various laws that applied and get a look at how much lawyers have done for our nation," Barron says.

He graduated from Willamette University College of Law in 1970, and clerked for the Oregon State Public Defender’s office and the Oregon Court of Appeals in 1969 and 1970, respectively. Barron says his work in the appeals court taught him the value of reading court transcripts to hone one’s trial skills. It also gave him a chance to watch the judges at work, inspiring him to want to become one.

Barron served as a Coos County deputy district attorney from 1971 to 1973, and then went into private practice at Bedingfield, Joelson, Gould and Barron until he was appointed a judge in 1980. His former partner, Roger Gould, was among several people who nominated Barron for the Wallace P. Carson Jr. Award for Judicial Excellence, an honor Barron received last year.

"Judge Barron is, without question, the leader of the legal community in our area of the state," Gould wrote in his nomination letter. "When he speaks, we all listen. When he rules, we know he is right, even when that ruling goes against our position. His intelligence and diligence are not surpassed."

Among his many career achievements, Barron is credited with establishing Coos County’s family court as well as a "rocket docket," which allows the court to function more efficiently and resolve cases more quickly.

His most memorable cases include the legal battle over the New Carissa, the infamous freighter that ran aground near Coos Bay in 1999. The state filed a 2001 lawsuit seeking $1.5 million in fees from the ship’s owners along with complete restoration of the beach and unspecified monetary relief, according to the Oregon Department of State Lands.

With Barron presiding, the case resulted in a 10-2 jury ruling in which the owners were found guilty of negligent trespass and ordered to pay $25 million to Oregon for the New Carissa’s removal. The ship’s owners appealed the decision. In May 2006, Oregon’s land board approved a settlement that pays for the removal, according to the state.

"That was an extremely interesting case," Barron says. "The trial itself was conducted by excellent attorneys and it involved a lot of legal work. From pretrial to post-trial I wrote about 13 opinions in the course of six weeks, and about eight of them during the trial itself."

The New Carissa case, which was tried less than a year after filing despite its complexity, was an example of the rocket docket in action. Barron says the case posed some unique challenges in terms of discovery and locating witnesses, including some who had to be deposed in Holland. The array of expertise presented on the stand also set some unusual precedents.

"We had experts from all over the world, and the level of expertise was fascinating. The fact that you could have somebody who was an expert on anchors was amazing to me," he says.

Other cases are not the slightest bit fascinating — just tragic.

"The termination of parental rights cases, by far, are the most difficult," Barron says. "There are some people who truly love their kids, but they do not have the ability to raise children. And in cases where there is domestic violence or alcohol or methamphetamine, it’s really sad because they’ve chosen those substances over their kids."

The growing number of people with little or no legal training representing themselves in court also presents challenges. "You have to make decisions on less than the best evidence because people don’t know how to present it, and there’s always the question of how much I’m allowed to help without favoring one side over the other," he says.

Barron doesn’t hesitate when asked to name his favorite thing about being a judge: People.

"I’ve always felt most of the people who come through the court are good people who made mistakes," he says. "I also really like legal research and the process of developing an opinion. I don’t think there’s a day I’ve woken up that I wasn’t excited to come to work."

His dedication to the profession is apparent in his volunteer work for the Oregon Judicial Department. He served four terms on the Judicial Conference Executive Committee and eight years — four as chair — on the Education Committee as well as several other department committees. He also has held multiple officer positions, including president, with the Circuit Court Judges Association.

His involvement with the bar includes writing many chapters and publications for CLE publications, speaking at CLE seminars and serving on three bar advisory committees. He was an original member of the Uniform Trial Court Rules Committee and served four terms on the Council of Court Procedures.

Barron’s commitment to healthy families is well known through his volunteer work with the Governor’s Council on Domestic Violence and the Coos County Children and Families Commission. He received the Gold Star Award from the Oregon State Commission on Children and Families. An award in his name is presented each year by the Coos County commission to people or organizations whose volunteer efforts significantly enhance the lives of at-risk youth in the area.

Judith McMakin, executive director of the Coos County Commission on Children and Families, also nominated Barron for the Carson award. McMakin says her office’s proximity to Barron’s courtroom gives her a chance to hear what young people say as they enter or leave.

"They know Judge Barron will be firm and consistent and expect results. He is often the authority figure kids need but don’t have at home," she wrote in her nomination. "That doesn’t mean they always like him, but they respect him. I have heard testimonials from young people years after coming before the judge where they credit him with having a major impact on turning their lives around."

Barron, who has two sons and four grandchildren of his own, says he sees his volunteer efforts as a way to stay connected with the people he serves.

"I think judges at times can lose track of their community," he says. "We’re part of the community and the decisions we make affect the community, so it’s nice to hear people talk about different issues and things that are important to them."

Gould, Barron’s former partner, notes that many people know Barron for his talent in the courtroom and dedication to volunteering outside the court. Not as well known, however, is the man who enjoys reading non-fiction and historical novels, skiing, traveling and walking up to 25 miles a week. Barron, who has been married to his wife, Bonnie, for more than 40 years, has not only a remarkable professional career, but an admirable personal life as well, Gould wrote in his nomination letter.

"I doubt that anyone would disagree that by deed and reputation, Judge Barron is a great jurist," Gould wrote. "What many do not know is that he is a devoted husband, father and grandfather with, and I do not exaggerate, a sense of humor that exceeds his great judicial abilities."

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

© 2008 Melody Finnemore

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