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Lawmaker links substandard care ruling to structural racism; Chief Justice says courts are working on improvements.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Rep. Janelle Bynum of Clackamas says she's 'past being nice' when she sees strucural racism. She blasted a judge's ruling that questioned a prison doctor's credibility and found care he oversaw to be substandard.Rep. Janelle Bynum has written to the Chief Justice of the Oregon Supreme Court saying an Oregon judge should apologize for a ruling last week that criticized Oregon's top prison doctor, who is Black.

Chief Justice Martha Walters declined. But Bynum told the Portland Tribune she believes the lawmaker's concern about system racism found a receptive audience.

In a Jan. 27 ruling, Marion Circuit Judge Claudia M. Burton questioned the competence and credibility of Dr. Warren Roberts, the Chief Medical Officer for the Oregon Department of Corrections. The judge said Burton was evasive and unconvincing while defending unacceptable medical care for Richard F. Weaver, a Native American inmate who contracted COVID-19 last October.

On Jan. 29, Bynum wote to Chief Justice Walters calling Burton's ruling "egregious," saying "I am utterly disgusted by the treatment of Dr. Roberts. I have gotten to know him through his work at DOC and he is one of the few people I trust to begin taking the care and welfare of our AICs (Adults in Custody) more seriously. We all know that Black and brown AICs are overrepresented in our system and we finally have someone who can see through their transgressions and allow to serve their sentence with dignity."

Bynum called the ruling "way out of line, disrespectful, and unnecessary" suggesting it was an effort "to erase the credentials of African American professionals. Oregon is fertile ground for this behavior if these actions are left unaddressed. Our court system is in grave need of an update in terms of cultural competency and double standards. I hope Judge Burton feels compelled to issue a personal and written apology to Dr. Roberts and the entire community."

Walters, in a Feb. 1 reply, noted ongoing efforts by Oregon judges to address implicit bias and said, "As you know, I am not able to discuss the Circuit Court's decision, which involves a pending case, but I do want you to know that I care very much about the obligation that all Oregon judges have to administer justice impartially … I look forward to continuing conversations with you and working together to ensure that Oregon's judicial branch is both strong and inclusive."

Judge cited professional difficulties

In Burton's ruling, she said the state's medical care of Weaver for asthma and pain had been unconstitutionally poor, demonstrating "deliberate indifference" to his well-being.

She dismissed Roberts' arguments to the contrary, citing his responses concerning his own professional situation. In particular, Burton noted a January 2020 Oregon Board of Medical Examiners corrective action agreement with Roberts requiring he undergo a one-year mentorship regarding patient care issues before resuming surgery.

"Prior to being confronted with the actual corrective action agreement, Dr. Roberts testified that he was currently able, under the agreement, to perform neurosurgery," Burton wrote. "However, he is out of compliance with the annual continuing certification requirements to maintain that certification in good standing."

Burton added that Roberts appeared to have violated his medical board agreement by continuing to provide care for inmates without engaging with a mentor doctor as required.

"In short, Dr. Roberts' technical competence as a physician is at least questionable. Dr. Roberts' testimony regarding his professional difficulties was evasive. At best, he had a poor understanding of his obligations under the corrective action agreement and the requirements to maintain his board certification. At worst, he was intentionally dishonest with regard to these matters."

Lawmaker defends doctor

Bynum, however, told the Tribune that she's been impressed by Roberts over the year that she's known him.

Beyond that, though, Bynum said she is concerned by a series of Black professionals in high-level positions in Oregon who've faced harassment, such as Erious Johnson, who left the Oregon Department of Justice after an ODOJ investigator targeted him after seeing references to Black Lives Matter and rap lyrics in his Twitter stream.

"I think the broader question is not the individual person, it's the pattern," Bynum said. "It doesn't matter who the person is. All they have to do is be close to the top and have black skin."

She said she was sparked to write her email because "The mechanisms for initiating these conversations, even sanctioning people for behavior, are very difficult to employ unless people have a very good grasp of what racism and harassment really look like for Black professionals in the workplace. It's so commonplace. We, as Black professionals, can see it. I can see it and smell it in an instant."

Bynum said she feels Walters is trying to change the culture of the judiciary, but the lawmaker hoped to impart a "sense of urgency" and resolve to those efforts.

Structural racism, she added, is "killing our families, is killing our professional ranks. It's killing the economics of the Black community, is killing us … I'm past being nice about this."


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