Oregon chief justice and Washington County judge confront questions
Leaders of Oregon state courts and Washington County Circuit Court are confronting questions about fair treatment of people of color — who make up about a third of the county's population — and whether courthouses should be off-limits to some arrests by federal immigration agents.
Oregon Chief Justice Martha Walters and Presiding Judge Danielle Hunsaker fielded those and other questions during a Washington County Public Affairs Forum Monday, Nov. 4, in Hillsboro.
A forum member asked Hunsaker about a perception by some minorities that courts are biased.
"That is not good news for me to hear," said Hunsaker, who has been a judge two years and presiding judge of the 15-member court since July.
"I will just tell you that my experience — and both how I approach judging and how I have seen my colleagues approach judging — is to be concerned about each person coming into the court feeling they had a fair chance to have their case be considered and be treated respectfully.
"I'm sorry to hear it's a rumor. But that has not been my experience."
Hunsaker said people are more willing to accept a result they oppose if they feel they had a fair process.
Asked later by Washington County Auditor John Hutzler whether there had been studies of racial disparities in the courts, neither Hunsaker nor Walters said they were aware of any. There was one official report by the state court system in 1994, led by former Chief Justice Edwin Peterson.
Walters did say that diversity of court staff was one of her priorities as chief justice. "Those concerns are reasons we are trying to reach out to all communities and say if you feel you have been treated unfairly, tell us about it so we can address it," she said.
Walters and Hunsaker spent most of their presentation on how courts have continued to operate despite deep staff reductions dating back a decade. The two-year budget approved by the 2019 Legislature does allow for some restorations.
Hunsaker, 42, is on the verge of U.S. Senate confirmation of her nomination to a vacant on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, so she may be leaving her state judgeship soon.
Walters, 69, was appointed to the Oregon Supreme Court in 2006. Last year, her colleagues chose her as chief justice, the first woman to lead not only the high court but the entire system of appellate and trial courts in Oregon. That six-year term ends in 2024. Under the system, the state pays judges and staffs, but counties furnish courthouses and security.
Walters said she expects soon to receive a recommendation that federal immigration agents can arrest people within courthouses only if they have judicial warrants, not administrative warrants issued by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
In 2017, ICE agents nearly took into custody a longtime Washington County employee near the courthouse before they realized their mistake. Oregon ACLU reported 10 arrests were made at the courthouse on various occasions. Thomas Balmer, Walters' predecessor as chief justice, wrote a letter of protest to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in April 2017.
"Our courts cannot operate the way we want them to if people are arrested in our courthouses before they have been tried," Walters said. "This has happened in our courthouses."
She also said the threat of arrest by federal agents has caused people to shy away from seeking restraining orders or other forms of help from the courts.
"These principles are important. that we are able to hold people accountable and that people feel they have access to justice," she said.
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