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Oregon Supreme Court undergoes more changes

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By PETER WONG
Oregon Capital Bureau

Chief Justice Martha Walters will retire from the Oregon Supreme Court at the end of the year, and Meagan Flynn will succeed her as chief justice.

The announcement Tuesday, Oct. 18, by the Oregon Judicial Department will mean that outgoing Gov. Kate Brown will have at least two positions to fill. Justice Thomas Balmer, also a former chief justice, announced his retirement Oct. 3.

Brown could get a third high court seat to fill, depending on when the U.S. Senate votes on the nomination of Justice Adrienne Nelson to a U.S. District Court judgeship.

Brown leaves office Jan. 9. During her nearly two terms as governor, Brown will have filled every one of the seven Supreme Court positions. Aside from Nelson, one of the seats has turned over once, when Lynn Nakamoto retired from the court after six years and Roger DeHoog was elevated from the Court of Appeals to succeed her this year.

Appointees would be up for election to full six-year terms in the nonpartisan positions in the May 2024 primary.

Neither Walters nor Flynn were made available for interviews.

The chief justice presides over the high court and assigns opinions. The chief justice also is the leader of Oregon’s trial and appellate courts, which cover all 36 counties in 27 judicial districts, and employs 200 judges and 1,720 nonjudicial employees. The two-year, tax-supported general fund budget for the Oregon Judicial Department is about $600 million. Starting in 2006, the chief justice serves a six-year term, chosen by the other justices.

Walters turns 72 in October. The Oregon Constitution requires judges to retire in the year they turn age 75.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski appointed Walters to the Supreme Court in 2006, after 30 years in private practice in Eugene.

Some of the cases she was involved in were on behalf of small Oregon cities and their ratepayers in the bond default lawsuits brought against the Washington Public Power Supply System; former Oregon State University softball coach Vickie Dugan, who claimed she had been wrongly fired for advocating for compliance with Title IX, which requires equal treatment of men’s and women’s sports in higher education, and Oregon golfer Casey Martin, who sought reasonable accommodation to enable him to play professional golf.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in 1972 from the University of Michigan and her law degree in 1977 from the University of Oregon.

She was elected to full terms in 2008, 2014 and 2020. She was named by the other justices as chief justice to succeed Balmer starting in July 2018.

Walters’ record

Walters was enmeshed in a recent controversy when she removed all nine members of the Commission on Public Defense Services after they chose Aug. 11 not to fire Stephen Singer, who had led the Office of Public Defense Services for eight months. She did reappoint five members, but the newly reconstituted commission voted Aug. 18 to fire Singer, who filed suit Oct. 11 in Multnomah County Circuit Court.

The Judicial Department release said: “Most recently, she has been working collaboratively to address Oregon’s public defense crisis, to ensure that people who are constitutionally entitled to counsel have lawyers to represent them.”

She lives in Eugene with her husband, John Van Landingham, a Legal Aid lawyer and an expert on housing issues. They have two adult children.

Walters said this in a statement released by the Judicial Department:

“I am grateful — grateful for the opportunities I have had to study and decide the law, and grateful for the opportunities I have had to advocate for our courts and the cause of justice they serve.

“Oregonians can be proud of their appellate and trial court judges and their professional staff members who strive, every day, to listen with attention; make decisions that are timely, fair, and equitable; and take steps to make the changes that are necessary to maintain public trust and confidence.”

Brown said this in a statement released Tuesday:

“Chief Justice Martha Walters has been an incredible advocate for Oregonians seeking access to justice, showing steadfast leadership as the first woman to serve as chief justice of the Supreme Court.

“She has been collaborative and fearless in helping to seek solutions to some of the state’s most pressing and complex issues. I appreciate her dedicated service to Oregon, and wish her the very best.”

Walters kept the courts operating during the coronavirus pandemic, though physical closures led to a backlog in some courts.

Her other work, according to a Judicial Department release: Leading the Oregon courts’ strategic campaign to improve services to Oregonians; engaging circuit courts in department governance and decision-making; focusing on behavioral health needs of people in Oregon’s courts, and implementing 2021 legislation reducing security release (bail).

Meagan Flynn

Flynn, 55, was appointed by Brown to the Supreme Court in April 2017. She had been a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals, which Gov. John Kitzhaber appointed her to in November 2014.

Before then, Flynn practiced civil appellate law at the Portland firm of Preston Bunnell & Flynn, where she primarily handled cases before the Oregon Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and the Benefits Review Board of the U.S. Department of Labor.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in 1989 from Willamette University, and her law degree in 1992 from Gonzaga University.

She was a judicial clerk to Rick Haselton and Robert D. Durham, then judges on the Oregon Court of Appeals (1992-94). She then was an associate attorney at the Portland firm of Pozzi Wilson Atchison, where she litigated civil and administrative cases, primarily involving issues of products liability, personal injury, state workers compensation coverage and federal longshore compensation (1994-99).

Walters said this about Flynn in a statement:

“I have worked closely with Justice Flynn for the past five years and am so impressed by her intellect and work ethic. She studies the law carefully and thoughtfully, and when I have asked for help on any judicial branch project, she has been an eager volunteer.

“Justice Flynn will make an extraordinary chief justice, because she is open to all views, knows how to reach consensus, and wants to keep our courts responsive and accessible. Justice Flynn is deeply committed to equity and justice for all.”

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