Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters announced Tuesday she’ll retire at the end of the year.
Walters is the second justice this month to announce their retirement, giving Gov. Kate Brown at least two appointment to the state’s high court before her term ends.
“I have loved the job of advocating for our courts and the critical need for access to the services we provide,” Walters said during prepared remarks Tuesday morning at a judicial conference where she officially announced her retirement. “You have given your all and included me in it. You have set me straight, given me grace, and made me laugh.”
Justice Meagan Flynn, 55, will become the next chief justice, whose tasks include overseeing the Oregon Judicial Department, the state’s third branch of government.
Walters’ announcement comes amid an uncertain political future for the state. The three-way race for governor is tight. With unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson drawing some voters, Republican candidate Christine Drazan and Democratic Tina Kotek are locked in a very competitive race, according to polls.
By stepping down now, Walters has ensured Brown, a Democrat, will name her replacement. And Brown is more likely to appoint a justice in line with Walters’ jurisprudence.
Judges in Oregon must retire by the end of they year after they turn 75. Next week, Walters will turn 72. If Walters were to stay, that would give Oregon’s next governor the ability to appoint Walters’ replacement.
“Judges have legacies, the doctrine that judges are involved in creating is their legacy,” said Alison Gash, professor of political science at the University of Oregon.
Gash pointed to deceased U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, noting the story of the liberal justice offers a cautionary tale for any judge wishing to preserve their legacy. Rather than stepping down during Barack Obama’s presidency, Ginsburg stayed on the court. After her death, President Donald Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett to Ginsburg’s seat, giving conservatives on the court a super majority and the ability to overturn the constitutional right to an abortion, among other conservative victories.
“A lot of judges and justices have learned by looking at how rapid RBG’s legacy, RBG’s doctrine has been dismantled,” Gash said. “It should give any judge pause, thinking about how they can strategize around planning their retirement and stargazing around their replacement.”
Earlier this month, Oregon Supreme Court Justice Thomas Balmer, 70, also announced his retirement at the end of December. And Brown may have the opportunity to appoint a third justice before she leaves office. In July, Justice Adrienne Nelson was nominated by President Joe Biden to the federal bench, which requires confirmation by the U.S. Senate. Nelson’s confirmation vote could happen before the end of December, leaving yet another vacancy on Oregon’s Supreme Court.
Public defense crisis
For the past year, the state’s public defense crisis has been a focus for Walters.
The state has failed to provide attorneys for hundreds of people charged with crimes, despite the constitutional requirement to do so. As of Tuesday, more than 800 people did not have a public defender, some who were in custody, according to the Oregon Judicial Department.
The chief justice plays a huge role in the state’s public defense system, appointing commissioners who oversee the Office of Public Defense Services, a state agency.
In August, Walters repeatedly called on the commission to fire former executive director Stephen Singer, who ran the agency for eight months. When they didn’t, she dismissed the entire commission and reappointed mostly members who had voted to fire Singer. Days later, the new commission fired Singer. Many in the public defense community saw it as a case of judicial overreach, infringing on a public defense, which is supposed to function independently.
Last week, Singer, who alienated Walters and others with his brash style, filed a lawsuit arguing his dismissal violated state law.
Walters made her announcement effectively behind closed doors, at the Annual Judicial Conference, a meeting of some 200 elected judges from around the state. The Oregon Judicial Department would not disclose its location citing security concerns.
A news release said Walters would not be available for interviews.