Our Opinion: Untenable situation in Columbia County Circuit Court
Trust in the system is in short supply in Columbia County.
Over the years, we've reported on budgetary shell games, gross mismanagement, childish feuds, spurious lawsuits, questionable investigations and more in South Columbia County. Few public entities in our region have been blameless. And yet meaningful turnover and meaningful change in many of our public offices has been elusive.
So it is saddening and disappointing to see that Columbia County Circuit Judge Cathleen Callahan's colleagues and peers have lost confidence in her ability to do the job to which voters elected her in 2014.
That year, Callahan unseated a judge appointed by then-Gov. John Kitzhaber, a rare case of voters effectively overruling a governor's pick for the bench. Voters in Oregon have that right, since judges must periodically run for re-election, or retention. Just last year, another sitting judge, Jenefer Grant, lost her retention bid as voters elected Michael T. Clarke as the newest circuit judge in Columbia County.
Callahan joined the bench with nearly all of her experience rooted in civil law. As a judge, she had to learn on the job how to handle criminal proceedings. Judge Clarke will have to do the same. It's not ideal, but nor is it uncommon for a judge to be elected with only civil law or only criminal law experience — however, especially in a small judicial district like Columbia County, the job calls for them to handle both.
Right now, Callahan can't do that. That's because, as the Spotlight reported last week, District Attorney Jeff Auxier has asked that Presiding Judge Ted Grove not assign criminal cases to Callahan.
Why? Auxier says he is concerned about Callahan's mental state.
Last June, Callahan called in late for a sensitive hearing. On that call, she slurred her words and came across as confused and unprepared. The Spotlight's reporter spoke with participants on the call who said they believed Callahan was intoxicated. While not actually removed from the bench, Callahan's docket was cleared until September, and in October, at Auxier's request, Grove only began assigning her some civil proceedings.
This is untenable. While Callahan maintains that she was not intoxicated and instead experienced a medical episode — a claim for which she has not put forward documentation, despite the Spotlight's request — the fact remains that Auxier does not trust Callahan to carry out the full duties of a circuit judge, and Grove has agreed to limit her responsibilities accordingly. That leaves a very small bench even more shorthanded, especially as Clarke just stepped into the robes and will need time to learn the ins and outs of presiding over criminal court proceedings.
Our intention here is not to shame Callahan, or anyone who is struggling with addiction. Substance abuse disorder is a disorder. Addiction should be addressed and treated, rather than stigmatized and swept under the rug. If Callahan has a substance abuse problem, she is far from the first public official to have that same struggle; Grove, in fact, has spoken candidly about his struggles with alcoholism before he became a judge. Many addicts, including many alcoholics, can overcome it with proper care, compassion and constant vigilance. They should have the opportunity to do so.
However, it has been more than eight months since that disastrous hearing. The Oregon Judicial Department has stonewalled the Spotlight's requests for records that could shed light on how the court system is handling the matter internally. Callahan has been less than forthcoming with the public, saying only this month that she had a transient ischemic attack, or mini stroke — the symptoms of which closely resemble drunkenness— that she has since received unspecified medical care, and that she believes she is still fit to serve as a judge. But what we know is that eight months on, Callahan does not have the confidence of the county's top prosecutor, and the court's presiding judge continues to selectively manage her workload.
We have no wish to pry into people's personal affairs. But Callahan is in a position of public trust and authority. Her decisions can, without hyperbole, alter the course of people's lives. She has not leveled with the public as to why, for the better part of a year, she has been unable to perform the job to which she was elected in 2014 and re-elected in 2020, just weeks before she appeared to conduct a hearing while impaired. And her fractured working relationship with the district attorney will have knock-on effects, placing considerable pressure on her fellow judges, one of whom is brand-new and still getting up to speed.
Callahan owes the public an honest explanation of what has been going on. And if she is unable to regain the trust of the legal community in Columbia County, or if she is unable to fulfill her duties as a circuit judge, she should step down and allow someone else to serve out her six-year term.
Whatever ails Callahan, we sincerely hope that she gets the help and support she needs and that she makes a full recovery. And we hope the Columbia County Circuit Court gets back to full functionality as soon as possible. Judges wield awesome power, and the public deserves to be served by a court system they trust to be professional, efficient and diligent, just as they deserve government at every level that acts in their interests with ethics, accountability and integrity. It is hard to see how that can be the case in Columbia County unless there is a meaningful change.
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