Leaving the bench

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Local Circuit Court Judge Gary Williams will retire effective June 30

JASON CHANEY - After serving as circuit court judge in Crook and Jefferson counties for the past eight and a half years, Gary Williams announces his impending retirement and conclusion of a 43-year career in the Oregon Courts System.

When Circuit Court Judge Gary Williams isn't in the courtroom or fulfilling work requirements, he likes to indulge in many hobbies.

He and his wife of 43 years, Kris, enjoy horseback riding and own three horses, and they love to travel. Destinations yet to visit include Australia and Western Europe as well as numerous places throughout the country.

"I am going to ride halfway across Washington state this summer in the start of a (segmented) ride across the United States," Williams added. "Also, I have this desire to see the top of the country and the Atlantic Ocean, so I am going to ride a bicycle (across the U.S.) in the next two years in stages."

Williams will have plenty more time enjoy those hobbies and more after June 30, the day he has chosen to retire from the bench and a career in the Oregon Justice System that spans 43 years.

"I have been lucky and blessed," he said. "It has been a great career."

That great career began in January 1975 when Williams took a job in law enforcement at the Polk County Jail as a release officer. During his employment, he continued to attend college and later earned a Master's Degree in criminal justice, steering him toward a job as a probation officer in Salem.

Then in 1977, he and his wife moved to Bend, where Williams took another job as a probation officer, this time for the State Corrections Division in Bend. In this position, he not only covered portions of Bend, but rural communities like La Pine and Prineville, his future home.

"It was a very rural assignment I had," he recalls. "It was my first working connection to Prineville."

After four years with State Corrections, Williams decided to branch out into the legal profession. So he and his wife returned to Salem, where he attended Willamette University. He earned a law degree in three years, completing his schooling in 1984.

"My older brother and my dad were both members of the bar, so I had leanings that direction anyway," he said.

With a law degree in hand, Williams began looking for work in Central Oregon and found it when Gary Thompson, who was Crook County District Attorney at the time, hired him to serve as deputy district attorney.

Williams would work with Thompson for more than 20 years, succeeding him as district attorney when Thompson ascended to Circuit Court Judge in 1990 and again as judge when Thompson retired in 2008.

"He was a very good mentor in different roles, as a lawyer and as a judge," Williams said.

When Williams took over as judge, he had spent 18 years as a district attorney. He learned right away that the jobs are very different.

"As an attorney, you are an advocate, and you advocate for a person or a particular legal position while representing the people of Crook County," he explained. "As a district attorney, you have one client and it's collectively the community of Crook County. You take a position based on what you believe the people of Crook County would want to see, expect to see and should see out of a case."

A judge, by contrast, is not an advocate nor should they be.

"A judge is neutral and has a requirement to follow the law and do justice, regardless of the outcome."

Even though Williams was elected judge as a Crook County resident and served in Position 3, which is historically filled by people living in Crook County, he spent much of the beginning of his career presiding over cases in Jefferson County, the other community in the 22nd judicial district. Because he had served as district attorney in Crook County for so long, he had a legal conflict with any pending case in that community, and had to wait until they had all concluded the legal process.

"I bought a new truck the same month I got my new job," Williams recalls. "I have over 105,000 miles on that truck, mostly commuting between here and Madras."

During his eight and a half years on the bench, there is no particular case that stands out for Williams, although he does acknowledge that homicide cases or those involving child abuse, rape or other abuse have had an impact. He remembers listening to certain statements under oath by victims or by defendants.

"It is very painful to hear case after case after case of dysfunctional families, families who are in crisis, families who are under a lot of stress for one reason or another," he said. "Those circumstances cause problems for children. Those aren't happy cases. Some of them end happy, but none of them begin happy."

Williams won't miss that part of the job, nor will he miss what the job puts his wife through on a regular basis.

"It is hard to be a wife of a judge who has commitments often late at night," he said. "Sometimes, I'm on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We get frequent phone calls and visits from police officers wanting me to sign orders and warrants in the middle of the night or on weekends."

In spite of those challenges, Williams stressed that Kris has been very supportive throughout his career.

Williams will miss working with all of the people involved in the criminal justice process. He makes specific mention of the district attorney's office staff and members of the local bar association as well as business owners, school officials and members of law enforcement and the county juvenile department.

"We depend on the support of the community, and as a judge, I have had great support," he said.

And though it is painful to preside over certain cases, Williams said there is an element of excitement to the job that he will miss once he retires. He points out that there is a lot of drama involved in the testimony given by witnesses as well as the arguments that attorneys make, and that it is always suspenseful waiting for the jury to deliberate and return a verdict.

But as he prepares for retirement, Williams hopes he won't have to leave the bench behind completely. Like many of his predecessors, Williams is applying for senior judge status, a part-time position in which he would preside over certain cases for a period of five years.

During the rest of that time, he hopes to spend more time with his family, including his daughters, Melissa and Jessica, who also work in Central Oregon, and enjoy the hobbies that he has had to schedule around his longtime career.

"I am looking forward to doing what I do on weekends, and I am hoping that every day is like Saturday is to me right now."