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Laraine McNiece known statewide for mock graveyard, juvenile court, safety messages

COURTESY PHOTO - Oregon City Municipal Judge Laraine McNiece and newly sworn in Commissioner Adam Marl share a moment after the ceremony on April 30. After more than 20 years as the legendary Oregon City municipal judge, Laraine COURTESY PHOTO - Oregon City Municipal Judge Laraine McNiece celebrates history with newly sworn in Commissioner Denyse McGriff in 2019.McNiece retired at the end of May to move back to South Dakota.

"I'm sad to leave, but I'm also really looking forward to this next chapter," she said.

McNiece started in 2001 with a contract as OC's municipal judge, but she worked as the city's pro-tem judge for a couple of years prior to that. She still has family in South Dakota, where she lived until moving west at the age of 8.

McNiece is known in part for creating a mock graveyard that she put up every Halloween for about 20 years in front of her former house on 10th Street. While some of the gravestone messages were humorous, McNiece used the platform to share public-safety messages drawn from hearing more than 100 cases a week in her busy municipal courtroom. Sometimes she would tell convicts of her own son who died in 2005 of a drug overdose at the age of 25. McNiece is proud to have established an Oregon City attendance court to mandate juveniles attend school.

"If I can just turn things around for one student, then it's worth it," she said.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Laraine McNiece speaks at slain Oregon City Reserve Officer Robert Libke's memorial service in 2013.McNiece didn't see the people who came before her in court as bad people; she said in her eyes they're more often people who have made bad decisions. Some of these decisions require punishment under the law, she said, and in other cases, the perpetrators will have to live with their bad decisions for the rest of their lives, such as with 24-year-old Jordan Jacob Baurer who killed Josefina Rojas Bernadino, 52, while he was carelessly driving on Molalla Avenue in 2019. McNiece sentenced Baurer to 200 hours of community service, double the minimum penalty under current Oregon law.

McNiece is the immediate past president of the Oregon Municipal Judges Association, but 30 years ago, no one would have predicted her rise to be one of the most respected judges in the state. She started as an attorney in 1990 when she was in her 40s, and worked as a legal secretary before that.

"When I decided to become a lawyer, I didn't have any college experience, but I was able to get my bachelor's degree in 18 months by going to night school, weekend school and taking tough classes, all while being a single mother," she said.

McNiece admired former Clackamas County Circuit Judge Deanne Darling, the first woman on the bench in the county starting in 1995. McNiece said she didn't socialize with Darling, but they would talk frequently and sometimes even offer advice on how to best represent each other's positions.

"I've always admired her legal knowledge and common sense," McNiece said. "I always knew that the decisions she was going to make, even if they weren't the ones I was wanting her to make, were going to be the right decisions."

McNiece was full of praise for the current Oregon City Commission, which recently appointed Adam Marl to fill an open seat. City commissioners are in charge of hiring, firing and setting compensation for the municipal judge, but they can't overturn the judge's decisions, which are appealable to the county's circuit court. McNiece presided over the swearing-in ceremonies for Marl, the first Asian member of the Oregon City Commission in history, as well as the ceremony for Denyse McGriff, the first person of color ever on the commission starting in 2019.

"The composition of the different talents they bring to the commission, it's probably the best commission we've ever had with the diversity of perspectives they bring to the table," McNiece said. "The city isn't going to have any problem at all finding a good replacement for me because the court has developed a good reputation, and there are lots of lawyers who'd like to take this position."

McNiece's contract starting in July 2019 gave her a monthly salary of $5,669, a raise from the $5,396 monthly in the 2017 contract. City commissioners {obj:54360:currently are recruiting attorneys} to apply for the position and are offering $4,000-$5,500 monthly compensation to start.COURTESY PHOTO - Pictured from left are Oregon City Police Officer Brian Willard, OC Driver Ed Program Manager Suz Figini, Municipal Court Judge Laraine McNiece and OCPD Capt. Shaun Davis, accepting an OCPD appreciation award on behalf of OCPD and Chief Jim Band.

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