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Cathleen Callahan hasn't presided over criminal cases since incident; she says it was a mini-stroke, not alcohol

PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - Cathleen Callahan attends an event at Columbia Community Mental Health in 2019.A Columbia County circuit judge's erratic behavior at a hearing last year alarmed attorneys and led to the county's chief prosecutor asking that she no longer be assigned to preside over criminal cases, the Spotlight has learned.

On June 2, 2020, Judge Cathleen Callahan showed up late to a hearing in a child dependency case, slurred her words, and repeatedly mixed up the names and roles of various people involved in the case.

Attorneys who were listening to the hearing said Callahan's behavior was concerning.

When Callahan arrived, "it seemed very apparent that she seemed to be under the influence, just from her mannerisms and her speaking," said Mark Lang, one of the attorneys involved in the June 2 hearing, which was conducted telephonically.

Other attorneys on the call, all in separate locations, were texting and emailing with one another during the proceedings, expressing concern as Callahan slurred her words.

Audio of the hearing obtained by the Spotlight backs up the attorneys' characterization of Callahan's behavior. Because the audio identifies the family involved in the child dependency case, which are generally private cases, the Spotlight is not publishing the recording.

Callahan denied being intoxicated during the hearing. She said she suffered a "medical episode" during the court proceeding, which was diagnosed as a transient ischemic attack, or mini-stroke.

"I have been receiving the necessary medical care from my doctors and am confident that this episode has not affected my ability to carry out my judicial responsibilities," Callahan wrote in an email to the Spotlight.

Callahan declined to share any medical documentation confirming the diagnosis.

Callahan said she has not had any similar medical episodes since the June incident, but concerns related to her conduct have not been limited to one day in June.

Lang said the parties in the case sat on the phone for more than half an hour after the proceedings were set to begin, waiting for Callahan to show up.

"That's a lot of taxpayers' money sitting on the phone, because you've got attorneys that are appointed for these clients, you've got the attorney general (for the Oregon Department of Human Services) sitting on the phone, who could probably be doing other work," Lang told the Spotlight.

Lang said he felt bad for the clients on the phone, at least some of whom also thought Callahan seemed impaired.

"I think it really hurts people's confidence in the system," Lang said.

Paul Aubry, an attorney representing one of the family members in the case, said that he and other attorneys on the call notified court staff of Callahan's behavior.

Other attorneys confirmed that after the June incident, complaints were filed with the state Commission on Judicial Fitness and Disability, which hears complaints against judges and makes disciplinary recommendations to the Oregon Supreme Court. The commission's proceedings are confidential unless the commission files charges.

From June to September, Callahan was effectively off the bench, the county's trial court administrator confirmed. No official action was taken against her at that time, but she was not scheduled for any hearings.

As presiding judge, Judge Ted Grove manages the distribution of cases among the Columbia County Circuit Court's judges.

Callahan began handling civil proceedings again in September.

In October, District Attorney Jeff Auxier wrote to Grove asking to remove Callahan from all cases that the DA's Office is involved in, which means all criminal matters.

"I take this position with a great deal of regret, as I have never previously found Judge Callahan to be biased against the state and still consider her a friend. Unfortunately, the problem is that I am not confident that crime victims, law enforcement officers, or even the accused can receive a fair hearing or trial before Judge Callahan due to her current mental state," Auxier wrote.

Callahan's current docket includes issues like restraining orders, stalking orders, domestic relations and personal injury claims. Though those cases don't result in incarceration, they still determine the futures of families, homes, and individuals' finances.

In the letter, which the Spotlight obtained through a public records request, Auxier outlined a number of reasons for his concern.

Auxier also described a confrontation that took place on June 2, the same day as the hearing, "in which Judge Callahan approached me and criticized my decision to endorse Judge Grant in her re-election campaign, despite prior conversations in which we agreed not to discuss the matter." That was a reference to a contentious judicial race last year, which divided members of Columbia County's legal community between support for retaining Judge Jenefer Grant and replacing her with Scappoose-based attorney Michael T. Clarke.

During the conversation, Auxier wrote, Callahan "exhibited slurred and lethargic speech and I believe she smelled like alcohol."

Auxier said that attorneys who were present at the June 2 hearing described Callahan as "wasted" and "strangely jovial."PMG PHOTO - Columbia County Courthouse

Auxier also wrote that a defense attorney had recounted to him an incident where Callahan took a bottle of liquor out of her desk drawer and offered him a drink in chambers around 11 a.m. on a business day.

In addition, Auxier wrote that Columbia County Sheriff Brian Pixley had voiced concerns that Callahan was "impaired" while serving as the on-call judge, who is responsible for reviewing search warrants outside of business hours. Pixley confirmed Auxier's characterization of his concerns but did not comment further.

Auxier wrote that he and Chief Deputy DA John Berg had attempted to talk to Callahan in September, but she "was not willing to have a meaningful dialogue with my office about our concerns."

Callahan's "hostility towards me was alarming and … the meeting only increased my concerns about her ability to be fair and impartial," Auxier added.

Attorneys say Callahan's removal from handling cases put an additional strain on Grove and Grant, who eventually lost her re-election bid in November to Clarke.

Before becoming a judge, Callahan primarily practiced divorce law. Grove and Grant had more experience in criminal law and handled the majority of those proceedings.

Clarke's experience is also in civil cases, meaning Grove is handling criminal matters with one new judge and one effectively barred from criminal cases.

The Oregon Judicial Department effectively denied a public records request for correspondence between Grove and Callahan, with an Judicial Department attorney writing that he is "prohibited by state law from acknowledging whether any responsive public records exist."

The Judicial Department had also previously confirmed that records did exist, telling the Spotlight that staff had gathered the records and were in the process of reviewing them for any necessary redactions.

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