Experience was the primary focus among the candidates for Linn County Circuit Court during a candidate forum hosted Tuesday by the Lebanon Chamber of Commerce at the River Center.
Linn County Deputy District Attorney Michael Wynhausen is challenging Judge Fay Stetz-Waters for Position 1 on the Linn County Circuit Court. Stetz-Waters was appointed to that post in October 2017 by Gov. Kate Brown following the retirement of Judge Carol R. Bispham Hashagen.
Teri Plagmann and Rachel Kittson-MaQatish will be on the November ballot for Position 3 on the Linn County Circuit Court. This position became vacant with the retirement of Judge Daniel Murphy.
Plagmann has more than 20 years of experience in the practice of family business and criminal law. She owns and operates her own firm in Albany.
Kittson-MaQatish is a partner in the Morley Thomas Law firm. Her experience includes family law, civil commitments and personal injury cases. She also prosecutes misdemeanors on behalf of the city of Lebanon.
The judicial candidates for the two positions took part in separate question-and-answer sessions with moderator Charlie Eads.
Wynhausen repeatedly emphasized the fact that he has more than 20 years of experience as a prosecutor.
“I spent over 20 years prosecuting criminals in this and other communities. I’ve learned that there are essentially two different people that I end up dealing with: those that have a bad day, make a mistake, or are going through a rough period in their life and then those that habitually violate our laws and victimize our citizens,” Wynhausen said. “Because I have been doing this for over 20 years, I can see the difference.”
Stetz-Waters emphasized the broad experience she's gained serving the United State Marine Corps, as a Legal Aid attorney, and as an administrative law judge for the State of Oregon.
“I worked as a Legal Aid attorney. Legal Aid attorneys are generalists and so we take many cases that come in the door. I have a broad range of experience as a result of that work, working in family law,” she said.
She also noted her experience with the elder law program, which gave her opportunities to help seniors in a range of matters, including contract disputes and consumer fraud. She believes this experience makes her a better judge and she thinks her colleagues agree.
She pointed to a recent judicial preference poll of Linn County attorneys conducted by the Oregon State Bar in which she received more than 60 percent of the vote.
Plagmann said she has 21 years of experience as a trial attorney and started gaining experience before completing law school, being one of the youngest people to argue a case at the Oregon Court of Appeals.
“I have a number of years in the courtroom and the ability to handle cases, the ability to be fair, the ability to understand what clients, what people want when they come to court. The first thing they want is a judge who will listen to them,” she said.
Kittson-MaQatish used the last few days to illustrate the range of cases she handles on a regular basis. She said that on Friday she worked to settle a family law case, and on Monday she worked on multiple personal injury cases. On Tuesday, before the forum, she prosecuted misdemeanors for the city of Lebanon and presented a civil commitment case on behalf of Linn County in Circuit Court.
“I am moving from one area of the law to the other in my trial practice and that’s because I’m from a general practice firm. Morley Thomas is the only practice here in town and my partners and I, and our associated attorneys, handle an array of areas of the law which makes me very well suited to go to the bench from Morley Thomas,” she said.
The judicial candidates were also asked to identify the most pressing issue facing the Linn County Circuit Court.
Each of their answers related to the question of funding and the need for a sixth judge.
“We only have five judges, the same number we’ve had since the 1940s. Our community has grown since then, people have become more litigious since then and people have greater need,” Stetz-Waters said.
Wynhausen agreed that a sixth judge is needed. But, he added that the state has not provided funding for this position and is unlikely to do so anytime soon.
He said other areas of the law could benefit from following the approach of criminal cases, in which 95 percent of the cases in Linn County are settled short of trial.
“We need better alternative dispute resolution. All the judges engage in settlement conferences. Some are better at it than others. It would be valuable to have a training in Linn County for all of the judges to become experts in dispute resolution and try to settle these cases without going through the long process of a litigation or trial,” Wynhausen said.
Plagmann doesn't believe the state’s judicial spending is being evenly distributed.
“We need to make sure that our county, people here who live in Linn County, have the same resources available that are available in other counties. For example, Multnomah County is building a brand-new courthouse. Lane County is slated to build a brand-new courthouse. Clackamas County is slated to build a brand-new courthouse, and we don’t even have a sixth judge that we need,” she said.
Kittson-MaQatish said the primary problem facing the court is time. There are too many delays for too many citizens. She noted that in her work with Linn County she's given just one hour to handle civil commitment cases. In this hour, she must demonstrate that mental illness causes an individual to be a danger to themselves or others.
“That’s all I’m given to prove something extremely important,” she said.
She agrees that more judges are needed, but she also contends that experience also matters.
“You also solve it with experience on the bench. We need to elect judges that are ready to go to work. That have diverse experience and have litigation experience,” Kittson-MaQatish said. “I have criminal, family law, civil commitments and civil experience. That’s what you can do as a voter to help solve our significant problem.”