Judge Charles Bailey faces a rare challenger in Steven Charles Burke, a Beaverton lawyer, as Bailey seeks a third six-year term on the Washington County Circuit Court.
Incumbent judges are rarely opposed on the ballot once appointed or elected. Five of the seven county judgeships on the May 15 primary ballot are unopposed — and the only other contest is for the newly created Position 15.
The candidates have argued over who has the right blend of legal experience in Oregon's second most populous county.
Bailey spent most of his legal career before his judgeship as a prosecutor. He is the court's current presiding judge.
"I have nearly 12 years of experience as a circuit court judge and he has zero," he said. "I have done more civil trials as a judge than he as an attorney in his entire career. I have done everything from the simple personal injury cases to the complex civil litigation cases."
He said that as chief civil judge under then-Presiding Judge Kirsten Thompson, he reshaped how the court is handling civil cases and expediting them.
But Burke offered a differing view, saying he would bring a more balanced experience with civil cases, family law and probate, and criminal defense.
"That is what judges need. A lot of things cannot be learned from the bench," he said.
"My opponent thinks being a judge over a civil trial is the same as building a case for a client and putting on the trial. To me, that is like judging ice skating and then claiming you can ice skate with the best of them. No you can't."
Both candidates spent time in other work before they started their legal careers.
Bailey, 51, did a four-year stint in the Navy before he earned a bachelor's degree in sociology and political science in 1992, and a law degree in 1996, both from the University of Oregon. He was legislative assistant to then-state Rep. Tom Brian of Tigard in the 1995 and 1997 sessions.
After a year as law clerk to a Multnomah County judge, Bailey was a deputy district attorney from 1998 to 2006 — and on the DA's child abuse team from 2002 to 2006 — until he was elected to the bench in 2006. He became Washington County presiding judge in 2015.
Burke, 48, has been a senior associate at the Beaverton firm of Case & Dusterhoff since 2010. From 2001 to 2010 he had a private practice in Tigard, and also has worked for a small firm.
He earned a bachelor's degree in history from Portland State University in 1994, and his law degree from Lewis & Clark College in 2000. He also completed reserve training for the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office in 1993, and was a reserve police officer in Hillsboro from 1993 to 1996. He also worked at Wilshire Financial Services Group.
The candidates also argued about the significance of an Oregon State Bar preference poll, in which lawyers can indicate their choices in contested judicial races. Burke got 142 votes, Bailey 91 — and incumbents rarely lose such polls.
"My opponent is unpopular with the bar, primarily because of the terrible manner in which he handles the civil court docket, and because he comes off as hostile and oppositional to the attorneys in his courtroom. The bar wants change," Burke said.
"While the criminal docket is the most time-intensive, it still only represents about 30 percent of the court cases. People complain about how Bailey does his job, and he won't change."
But Bailey said many potential responders were unaware of the poll. He discounted its effects.
"I talked to at least 30 people (judges and attorneys) who told me they didn't know about it and if they had they would have voted for me," he said. "I lost the vote the poll in 2006, Judge Erwin lost it in 2008 (he only had 17 percent), historically it has not been an actual representation of the Washington County voters."
Bailey's reference was to Judge Andrew Erwin, the court's chief criminal judge, who has endorsed Bailey and stood in for him at a public forum May 3 at the Hillsboro Civic Center.
Bailey drew attention in 2015 when then-Judge Suzanne Upton filed a tort claim notice against him and brought to light feuding between judges.
Upton, after she was unopposed for re-election in 2016, retied from the bench in 2017. (She is married to John Foote, the Clackamas County district attorney.)
"The issue with Judge Upton has resolved itself, so out of respect for Judge Upton I decline to go into any details," Bailey said.
"I also have been told by Oregon Judicial Department legal (counsel) not to answer any questions regarding the issue except I can and do continue to categorically deny any and all accusations leveled against me."
Meanwhile, Judge Erwin filed a complaint with the Oregon State Bar and the Commission on Judicial Fitness against Burke for his comments about the legal backgrounds of sitting Washington County judges. Burke said 10 of 14 judges have primary experience only with criminal law, but has since modified that statement.
"Regardless, my concern that the Washington County bench could strongly benefit from more judges that are not primarily criminal prosecution or criminal defense attorneys remains strong," Burke said.
Burke also faces another complaint, this one filed by Ian McElroy of Lake Oswego with the bar, the commission and Chief Justice Tom Balmer, who leads the state court system.
Burke said the complaint stems from a personal grudge by McElroy.
"His grudge stems from being held accountable after trying to deprive his ex-wife out of a significant amount of money coming from a marital asset," he said. "The matter was resolved against Mr. McElroy after long and protracted litigation."
Burke said it's time for a change.
"It is going to take a lot of work to begin to move things in a new direction in that courthouse," he said. "However, with the recent appointment of new attorneys with civil and family law backgrounds, I think this is the perfect time to effect real change."
Bailey said that in addition to his selection as presiding judge by his colleagues and the chief justice, he serves on several work groups set up to improve the state court system and its processes.
He said colleagues from around the state chose him for the Oregon Council on Court Procedures, which oversees the rules for civil cases.
"All Washington County Judges who do endorse candidates have endorsed me," Bailey said. "Not one has endorsed my opponent."