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Spat Between DA And Judge Ties Up Wasco County Courts

OPB | Sept. 17, 2013 7:33 p.m. | Updated: Sept. 18, 2013 11:16 a.m. | The Dalles, Oregon

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In Wasco County, a disagreement between the district attorney and a circuit judge has put the brakes on roughly 80  criminal cases.

On the surface, everything appears to be business as usual at the Wasco County courthouse in The Dalles.  Monday morning, defendants climbed the marble staircase and filed into the courtroom on the third floor.  There Judge Paul Crowley addressed the various attorneys before running through the morning criminal docket.

“OK, So the normal 10 o’clock review is not going to happen because Judge Stauffer is not here and there’s nothing scheduled for trial this week and to the extent that anything needs to be reviewed make a request in advance and give me your address in the custody calendar,” Crowley announced.

Crowley is the presiding judge for Oregon’s 7th Judicial District, but he’s just filling in. 

Usually, Judge Janet Stauffer is at the bench. Stauffer is one of two circuit court judges in Wasco County. But she’s the only judge who hears criminal cases.  That’s because the other judge, John Wolf, is married to a Wasco County prosecutor.

But in the last few weeks,  Wasco County District Attorney Eric Nisley has filed motions to disqualify Stauffer in more than 80 cases now before the court.

In sworn affidavits, Nisley says he believes the state wouldn’t be able to get a fair and impartial trial with Judge Stauffer presiding.

Those filings don’t say why the DA believes that, nor do they have to, says Caroline Davidson, assistant professor at Willamette University College of Law.

“Under Oregon statute, there has to be a good faith belief that the judge is unable to be fair and impartial. But that said they don’t actually have to state that reason for that belief,” Davidson explains.

Last week, the court and the district attorney’s office issued a joint statement saying the DA has agreed to stop filing any new motions to disqualify. The parties say they are working together to address the concerns that brought about the filings in the first place. 

But both parties said they would not comment on the matter further.  And Crowley, the presiding judge, said he would not comment on the dispute. Press accounts indicate that the rift began during a recent trial.

“This is CR12-189 - once again this is State of Oregon versus …”

That’s Judge Stauffer during a pretrial hearing in a rape case.  The case involved a 17-year-old boy who was eventually acquitted on charges that he raped a teenage girl. 

Nisley attempted to have Stauffer removed from that trial because of statements she made like this one during the pretrial hearing on whether the defendant would be released from jail pending trial: “I think that the investigation in this matter appears to have been missing something and I think … I don’t think that’s true.”

That’s Nisley saying “I don’t think that’s true.” The DA wanted Stauffer removed because of what saw as evidence of bias against the state. 

But Multnomah County Judge John Wittmayer denied his request, concluding there was no indication of any bias or appearance of bias on the part of Stauffer.

Before the most recent press release, Nisley told The Dalles Chronicle that his efforts to disqualify Stauffer in future cases weren’t about outcomes or results.

“Fairness is a process” he told the paper.  “And I think a judge, above all people has to look higher than him or herself to the perception people will have of the process.”

The paper also spoke to Judge Stauffer.  She told the Chronicle the DA is engaged in what she called “bullying tactics.”

She ‘s quoted this way: “District Attorney Nisley has figured out a way that he, alone can manipulate and control the Wasco County criminal justice system.  For all concerned, the effect is unreasonable, costly and unfair, especially to victims and to those accused of crimes.”

It’s not clear what will come of the discussions between the DA’s office and the court or what impact they will have on the 80-plus criminal cases. 

Oregon statute allows a judge to challenge motions to disqualify.  But so far that hasn’t happened.

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