Two candidates for Columbia County Circuit Court share past experience, priorities

COURTESY - Michael Clarke, left, is running to unseat incumbent Jenefer Grant, right, as a circuit court judge.Two candidates are in the runoff for Columbia County Circuit Court, Position 3, this November.

The incumbent, Judge Jenefer Grant, placed second to attorney Michael T. Clarke in the three-way primary earlier this year. Clarke took first by just 137 votes, or less than a percentage point. The race continued to November because Clarke did not win a majority of the vote.

Grant responded to a questionnaire from the Oregon State Bar, which publishes a voter guide for each judicial election cycle.

Clarke did not submit responses to the OSB voter guide, but he answered similar questions for the Spotlight.

Both candidates were asked about the number of trials or contested hearings they have been involved in within the past five years.

Clarke said it's difficult to keep track how many hearings he has attended. He estimated that he has litigated one trial with a jury, one trial with just a judge and one arbitration, where a neutral third party reviews a civil dispute and makes a legally-binding decision.

Grant has been involved in far more trials as a judge, though most cases in Columbia County settle without going to trial. She said she has presided over one murder jury trial, several sex abuse jury trials and multiple DUII jury trials since being appointed to the court in 2007.

Each candidate was asked about an issue in Oregon's justice system that concerns them.

Clarke said he is concerned with barriers to accessing justice, which include the slow processing of cases and the high cost of the court system, including attorney fees and filing fees.

Clarke offered volunteer mediation services in the county's small claims court from 2007 to 2013. He currently serves on the board of directors for Columbia County Legal Aid, Inc., which provides legal advice and representation in civil matters.

Grant served on the legal aid board until becoming a judge.

Grant said she is concerned with the state's corrections system and decreasing the rates at which individuals go on to commit new crimes after conviction.

Grant said she believes in using "evidence-based practices to reform behavior."

"It does not make sense to lock people up without giving them tools to use when they get out, to become productive members of society," Grant wrote in her response to the OSB questionnaire.

Grant also noted the prevalence of mental illness in jail populations and the impact of childhood trauma on future criminal activity, both of which require more collaboration with mental health and child welfare advocates.

Grant started her career in the early 1990s with part-time legal work for Portland law firms, while opening a restaurant. She practiced law in St. Helens for more than a decade before becoming a Columbia County Circuit Court judge in 2007. She was the presiding judge for the court from 2012 to 2019.

Clarke joined a law firm in Portland in 2005 and began working in Scappoose in 2007. His experience has primarily been in estate planning, contracts, real estate and other civil issues.

Grant was a founding member of the Columbia County Consortium, which provides public defense services. She also represented low-income clients in St. Helens and Rainier municipal courts, which can prosecute minor offenses like traffic violations and misdemeanors.

In larger courts, judges often end up focusing on certain types of cases. In Columbia County, where there are only three circuit court judges, different types of cases are shared.

Grant said she handles all levels of criminal cases, as well as traffic cases, juvenile delinquency, child dependency, civil litigation and more. Grant has also presided over the drug courts for both juveniles and adults, which offer treatment and supervision to offenders.

When asked about a legal figure they admire, both candidates named Ted Grove, presiding judge for Columbia County Circuit Court. Grove endorsed Grant for re-election.

Both Clarke and Grant attended high school and college in Oregon. Clarke went on to law school at the University of San Francisco, while Grant received her law degree from George Washington University.

Even among employees, the courthouse has been far from a calm environment in recent years.

Clarke announced his candidacy after Grant was accused of gossiping with a parole and probation officer and falsely claiming that the officer's boss, Janet Evans, was stalking the officer. Grant said that she did not accuse Evans of stalking anyone, but that she was aware of a toxic environment in the parole and probation department and voiced her concerns to Commissioner Henry Heimuller.

"Instead of taking my concerns seriously, he participated in an attack, orchestrated by Janet (Evans) against me for something that I did not ever actually say ... they didn't like what I had to say. And this was a way of shutting me up," Grant said on a local radio show earlier this month.

In his responses, Clarke wrote that he "(does) not like the turmoil in our county courthouse."

"A judge's ability to maintain the public's trust appears to be a challenging problem in this county," Clarke wrote.

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