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Justice Thomas Balmer retires from Oregon Supreme Court

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By PETER WONG
Oregon Capital Bureau

Justice Thomas Balmer will retire Dec. 31 after 21 years on the Oregon Supreme Court.

He is the longest serving member of the current court.

Gov. Kate Brown, who has named five of the seven justices, will appoint a successor. She will start with candidates who applied a year ago for vacancies on the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals, although the list is open to others who want to apply. Oregon does not require Senate confirmation of judges. Brown elevated a Court of Appeals judge to the Supreme Court, then named three to the Court of Appeals, where two judges retired.

Balmer, 70, announced his retirement in a letter to Brown on Monday.

“It has been an honor and the privilege of a lifetime to serve on the Oregon Supreme Court for the past 21 years. I have done my best to live up to my judicial oath to ‘faithfully and impartially’ fulfill my duties as a judge, uphold the constitutional role courts play in our democracy and contribute to a justice system that strives towards ‘equal justice under the law.'”

He and his wife, Mary Louise McClintock, live in Portland. They have two grown children and a new grandchild.

Brown said this in a statement:

“Justice Balmer has brought a keen legal intelligence, a commitment to hard work, and a deep understanding of our state to the Oregon Supreme Court. Since his appointment in 2001, including his six years as chief justice, he has been wise, open-minded, and independent. I appreciate his more than 20 years of service to the people of Oregon.”

Former chief justice

Balmer was appointed to the high court by Gov. John Kitzhaber in 2001.

He was chief justice — named by the justices themselves — from 2012 through June 2018. In addition to presiding over the high court and supervising its workload, the chief justice also oversees Oregon’s system of trial and appellate courts. Since 2006, the chief justice serves a six-year term.

As chief justice, Balmer oversaw the implementation of Oregon eCourt, the system’s information technology, obtained state money for replacement of county courthouses — Oregon’s 36 counties provide maintenance and security — and supervised the renovation and seismic reinforcement of the Supreme Court Building in Salem, which dates back to 1914. That project is scheduled for completion by the end of this year.

Martha Walters, who succeeded Balmer as chief justice, said this in a statement:

“I have had the amazing good fortune of serving with Justice Balmer since I joined the court in 2006. He is a true student of the law, bringing his powerful intellect and common sense to every question that comes before us.

“As our chief justice, Tom made the job of leading our courts look simple. Without fanfare, he instigated and completed a myriad of projects designed to modernize and strengthen our courts and to increase access to justice. Even after he stepped down as chief, Tom continued to advance that work, always keeping the common good at the fore, as he does in every decision he makes. Our court will miss Tom as the leader of our band, and I will miss his everyday presence as a partner and a friend.”

Background

Balmer earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Oberlin College in 1974 and his law degree from the University of Chicago in 1977.

He has been in private practice in Portland, Boston and Washington, D.C. He was managing partner at two Portland firms — Lindsay Hart Neil & Weigler, and Ater Wynne — and also did stints at the U.S. Department of Justice and the Oregon Department of Justice. He was deputy attorney general, the No. 2 position at the Oregon Department of Justice, when Ted Kulongoski was attorney general from 1993 to 1997.

When Kulongoski resigned from the high court in 2001 to mount a successful bid for governor in 2002, Kitzhaber appointed Balmer to succeed Kulongoski. Balmer was then at Ater Wynne.

Balmer won election in 2002, 2008, 2014 and 2020. His successor would be on the May 2024 primary ballot for a full six-year term.

A second vacancy on the high court is pending. Justice Adrienne Nelson was nominated July 14 by President Joe Biden to be a U.S. District Court judge. (Judge Michael Mosman, appointed in 2003, took senior status at the end of 2021.) But Nelson’s nomination is subject to confirmation by the U.S. Senate, and until there is a vote, she remains on the Oregon court.

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