Oregon State Bar Bulletin — APRIL 2011

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Lawyers in the Oregon Legislature

Rep. Cliff S. Bentz, R-Ontario, is 400 miles and seven hours away from Salem. “I live in a different time zone,” he says. “When you drive here, you’re going to lose an hour.”

Bentz, who has served in the Oregon Legislature since 2008, loses a lot more than that hour by being a lawyer-legislator. He must live in the capital during sessions, missing out on family time with his veterinarian wife and two children. “It’s quite a sacrifice,” he says. “You miss your kids going to high school.”

Then there is lost income: “If you’ve been practicing 33-34 years as I have, you leave the firm when you’re doing as well financially as you’re probably going to, so you’re taking a big cut in pay.”

Bentz, who represents 63,400 Oregonians in Malheur, Baker, Harney and part of Grant counties, is one of 15 Oregon lawyer-legislators who serve the state by putting public interest ahead of their professional and private lives. (See box.) Attorneys serving in the Legislature play an important role in ensuring that legislation passed is legally sound and workable, and in defeating or reworking bills that wouldn’t pass constitutional muster or are poorly drafted.

“Absolutely, there’s no doubt about it,” says Bentz. “The familiarity with our statutory structure, the understanding of how different laws work… You come in with a great advantage, because much of the jargon and structure are familiar to you.” In law school, “you learn how to think,” he adds. “You put that to work for the state.”

“I draw on my legal training all the time,” says Rep. Chris L. Garrett, D-Lake Oswego, serving in his second session. Legal skills lend themselves to policymaking, and attorneys are accustomed to being able to see both sides of an issue, Garrett notes.

“The primary job of a legislator is to suggest, evaluate or vote on legislation,” says Rep. Dennis M. Richardson, R-Central Point. “There is no better preparation for legislative work than a lawyer’s familiarity with reading statutes, doing legal research and asking probing questions, which is a daily part of committee life where people come and testify before legislative committees.”

Sen. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Northwest Portland-Beaverton, who has served in Salem since 2007, says lawyer-legislators often are better able to determine the impact of legislation.

“The study of law teaches one to think critically, to express thoughts with precision, to see problems and solutions from multiple perspectives, and to find a balance between seeing the big picture while still paying attention to the details.”

Who They Are
Aside from sharing the same profession, attorneys in the Legislature come from varied backgrounds and bring different points of view to their legislative posts.

Bonamici put herself through college and law school at the University of Oregon. She then worked as a consumer protection attorney for the Federal Trade Commission in Washington, D.C., and worked in private practice. When she moved back to Oregon, she took a career break to raise her children and to volunteer for education, arts and civic organizations.

“Working at Legal Aid, as a paralegal and during law school, and working on public policy as an attorney in the federal government helped shape my desire to serve in public office,” she says.

Bonamici is one of two assistant majority leaders, sits on the Senate Judiciary and Education committees, and chairs the Senate Consumer Protection and Public Affairs Committee. She says anyone who serves in the Legislature loses a certain amount of privacy.

“I’ve given up time with my family and my anonymity,” she says. “People come up to me in the grocery store and tell me what they think of legislation or ask me to help them with problems they are having.”

First-term Rep. Shawn M. Lindsay, R-Hillsboro, jokes that he was “born with a suitcase. I enjoy politics.” A fourth-generation Oregonian, he grew up in a single-parent home and helped support the family by refinishing antique furniture after school and “bucking hay” during the summers.

A business and intellectual property lawyer with Lane Powell, Lindsay earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Washburn University School of Law. He has lived in Spain, speaks Spanish fluently and is conversational in Catalán.

Lindsay says the strains of a yearlong campaign to win the seat — by only a seven-point margin — were demanding on his work and family time, even more so than being in the session has so been far. He expects that serving in the Legislature actually will enhance his practice. “It is an opportunity down here,” he says. “I think I’ll be able to serve my clients even better.”

He says Lane Powell has a strong commitment to public service, and he would like to see more law firms and companies offer their members and employees the opportunity to serve in the Legislature. “Otherwise, the only people who would be available to serve would be wealthy individuals or retired individuals.”

House Ways and Means Co-Chairman Dennis Richardson grew up in Los Angeles and has lived in Southern Oregon since 1979. A decorated Army veteran, he was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam and worked as a carpenter while attending college. He earned his law degree from the J. Reuben Clark Law School at Brigham Young University and has practiced as a plaintiffs’ lawyer for 23 years. He’s featured in Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in American Law.

“I believe most lawyers would be well to plan their careers so that their final 10 years of active duty will be spent in public service on the bench or as an elected official,” says Richardson, who has followed his own advice. A major influence on him was the creed of Benjamin Franklin, who believed that one should focus the first half of life on education, family and livelihood, and the remaining years on active service to others.

“This philosophy enabled me to prepare for public service during my 40s,” he says. “I would have not been able to serve in the Legislature if I also needed to be a full-time attorney.

“Before entering the Legislature, I structured my law practice for maximum use of paralegals, technology and associate attorney assistance. It was not easy and could not have occurred if I had not planned for this public service for years in advance by living beneath my financial means, paying off personal and business debt, and foregoing many expensive luxury items that would have consumed too much of my resources. Serving in the Legislature is nearly a full-time job for me.”

Native Portlander Chris Garrett graduated from Reed College and worked for then-Rep. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin, who now is a state senator. Garrett went on to earn his law degree at the University of Chicago Law School. He practices at Perkins Coie and has served as senior policy adviser to Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, who also is a lawyer.

Ever since working as an aide to Devlin, Garrett has been attracted to public service. “I’m drawn to the process of policymaking,” says Garrett, who is on the House Judiciary and Rules committees and co-chairs the House Redistricting Committee.

“I do think it’s important for lawyers to serve in the Legislature. They’re indispensable to the process because of the knowledge they bring to making and understanding laws. Lawyers understand that in a way that no one else does.”

Bentz concurs. When he first arrived in Salem, he came with the assumption that a legislator’s success would be measured by the number of bills he or she passed. But he soon discovered that equally or more important was stopping the “bad legislation” that comes “to you in all shapes and sizes.”

“This is why being an attorney is so helpful,” he says. “You can anticipate unforeseen consequences. What I bring to this is a voice from a different part of the state. When I speak or weigh in on an issue, I believe that what I say makes things better for my being here.”

Bentz, whose family has ranched in Eastern Oregon for 90 years, decided to seek office after having enjoyed being student body president in both high school and college.

He came to believe early on that “knowledge is power,” and chose to pursue a law career. He has practiced with the firm Yturri Rose since 1977. One reason he ran for the Legislature in particular was: “I wanted to see how it worked. Self-government is interesting.”

“The truth of it is, the opportunity to serve your state in this capacity is so rare and so interesting,” says Bentz. “The opportunity to help this state and make it better is a huge privilege.”

Service in Retrospect
Lane P. Shetterly, who served as a Republican from Dallas in the Oregon House of Representatives from 1997 to 2004, is familiar with the trade-offs that come with public service.

“On a personal level, it was an immensely rewarding experience to have the opportunity to shape public policy in matters large and small,” he says. “For lawyers used to helping people, it’s the same kind of rewards in a different environment.”

But in economic terms, long service in particular becomes a strain, admits Shetterly, who chaired the House Judiciary and Revenue committees and was speaker pro tem. Living 15 miles from the capital, he could come home to dinner with his family, but then would spend two to three hours at his law office and return home to read bills until 11 or midnight to prepare for the next day.

“It got harder and harder each session” — and each session he saw a cumulative drop-off in business.

Still practicing with Shetterly, Irick & Ozias, he says having experienced the process of creating laws gives him a better understanding of the statutes when he reads them today.

“On the political side of things, we know how to disagree with colleagues with whom we maintain collegial relations,” Shetterly says, adding that without that quality, “navigating the interpersonal relations” on the political level can be more difficult for some legislators.

“Quoting Shakespeare, ‘Strive mightily and drink as friends.’ We know how to do that, a skill that’s useful in being an effective legislator.”

Dick Springer, who served as a Democrat from Portland in both the House and Senate, calls his 16 years in the Legislature “a tremendous education and experience.” A member of the House (1981-88) and Senate (1989-96) Judiciary committees, he chaired both and also was Senate majority leader.

During his era, not many law firms “would allow an associate or partner to take the time to serve,” he recalls. He felt fortunate that his firm at the time, Pozzi, Wilson & Atchison, strongly supported his decision to serve. Springer had been a deputy district attorney in Multnomah County, so he knew a lot of judges and other members of the bar. The opportunity to work with them, as well as with law school professors and deans while chairing the Judiciary committees, was rewarding, he says.

The Judiciary committees received a lot of attention and bills during his time in both houses, and Springer says Oregon State Bar committees were very involved with helping the Legislature, such as in lining up witnesses. “We couldn’t have done our work without the contributions of the bar,” he says.

Now manager of the West Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District, Springer cherishes the time he spent in Salem.

“It was an opportunity of a lifetime. The people you met from every walk of life, every corner of the state.” But “there are definitely trade-offs,” he acknowledges, and several of his mentor lawyers who had been around politics warned him that he needed to remember he would have to maintain a practice to return to after he was no longer in office. They told Springer, “You have to ride two horses at the same time.”

Prospects for the 2011 Session
“Although there is an evenly divided House and a very slight majority of Democrats in the Oregon Senate, I have not seen the divisiveness that there seems to be at the national level, and I hope not to,” says Bonamici.

Garrett agrees. “I don’t think our partisan divide is nearly as bad in Oregon,” he says. “I personally see people work with people across the aisle all the time.”

“This is a 30-30 House,” adds Lindsay. “We are not equally divided, we’re equally united,” he says. “I’m optimistic that we’re collegial and we’ll get the highest-priority things done.”

According to Richardson, the current co-governance model being used in the House shows signs that the atmosphere in the Legislature “is much more professional than it was just a few years ago.”

He echoes several other lawyer-legislators in maintaining that the budget crisis facing the state and the Judiciary are at a crisis level.

Bonamici says the impact of budget cuts on the Judicial branch, the physical deterioration of Oregon courthouses without a source of capital funding, and the “problems of making criminal justice policy by initiative” are all important issues facing the legal profession and the rule of law generally.

“The lack of funding for the Judiciary is a serious problem,” she says. “Our courts are often short-staffed, our judges are paid less than judges in most other states, and too many Oregonians are unable to get representation because Legal Aid is not adequately funded.”

“I think funding is an issue. But it’s not the sole issue,” says Lindsay. “Some circuit courts are run much better than others, particularly (among) those in the tri-county area.” He believes that “best practices and accountability” for running circuit courts better are an important part of the equation.

“Oregon’s budget crisis is monumental, and fundamental reform is needed to address it,” concludes Richardson. The commonly used figure of the state’s having a $3.5 billion revenue shortfall really is closer to $5 billion, he maintains. “One thing is apparent: Business as usual is not a viable strategy for balancing the 2011-13 state budget.”  

Cliff Collins is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.

© 2011 Cliff Collins

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