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Choice For Judge Made Difficult By What Candidates Can't Say

Oregon’s Supreme Court is seeing big changes this year.

During the May primary, three of the seven court seats were up for grabs and two occupants have been decided: Dave Brewer and Virginia Linder.

But there’s a run-off for the third seat.

Multnomah County Judge, Richard Baldwin, and private practice attorney Nena Cook, are the two candidates.

The trouble with trying to decide who to vote for in an Oregon Supreme Court race is that candidates can’t say a lot.  They don’t want to have to recuse themselves from a case in the future, so they don’t talk legal issues. And it’s a non-partisan race, so they don’t talk politics either.

What voters are left with is a candidate’s resume.

Richard Baldwin, candidate for Oregon Supreme Court justice

Richard Baldwin, candidate for Oregon Supreme Court justice

Kristian Foden-Vencil/OPB

Richard Baldwin: “I grew up in San Jose California and I moved up here with my wife to Oregon in 1972.”

Richard Baldwin went to Lewis and Clark College. 

Richard Baldwin: “After than I went to work at Legal Services representing low income Oregonians in eviction and family law cases.  I had a private practice for 10 years, doing a lot of trial work representing folks in family law matters and injury claims.”

Baldwin then became the director of the Oregon Law Center and in 2001, he was appointed to the bench by Governor John Kitzhaber.

Baldwin has a few years on his opponent, Nena Cook. So his resume is a little thicker.

Richard Baldwin: “I have 35 years of legal experience total. I’ve been extremely productive. I started Multnomah County’s first mental health court. I’ve tried hundreds of major felony trials, including murder trials.”

Baldwin presided over the drug treatment court in Multnomah County and if elected, he says he’d be the only justice on the court with direct experience in murder trials.

So now, how about Nena Cook?

Nena Cook, candidate for Oregon Supreme Court justice

Nena Cook, candidate for Oregon Supreme Court justice

Kristian Foden-Vencil/OPB

Nena Cook: “I was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah. Went to undergrad at Gonzaga University in Spokane and then came to Oregon in 1988 to attend Willamette University College of law.”

In 2007, Cook was appointed as a Multnomah County Court Judge Pro Tem — a temporary and voluntary position.
She was also elected president of the Oregon State Bar’s Board of Governors. During her tenure, she set up a task force to improve access to courts for people with disabilities and she helped start a loan repayment program for law students interested in public interest careers. 

Baldwin touts his experience as a trial judge, but Cook points out there’s already a trial judge on the Oregon Supreme Court.

Nena Cook: “What we don’t have yet and now is the experience I would bring, that which I’ve described as my 21 years in private practice doing a wide variety of work for a wide variety of people and businesses.”

So much for what they say about themselves, but what do other lawyers think?

Roy Pulvers: “The things that I look for are whether their judgement has been tested in a public context, so that there is a record.”

Roy Pulvers used to be the staff attorney for the Oregon Supreme Court.

Roy Pulvers: “And you always want someone who is intellectually up to the job, you want someone’s who’s thoughtful, hardworking. ….. that’s important, it’s not just sort of a place to land.”

Pulvers concedes precious few voters will research Baldwin’s decisions or Cook’s work ethic. And by the way, he’s not saying who he’s voting for.

Roy Pulvers: “A number of us, me included, appear in front of those courts in a periodic basis and you need to be thoughtful about making public statements about who you’re supporting or not.”

Pulvers says voters are basically left to consider endorsements.

So, according to Cook’s website, she’s been endorsed by the Oregon Stonewall Democrats, the Oregon Business Association and the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund.

Nena Cook: “I’m endorsed by both the business community and labor unions. So what you will see in reviewing my endorsements is this balance .”

On the other hand, Baldwin’s website says he’s endorsed by the Oregon Education Association, Oregon AFSCME and 57 Circuit Court Judges.

Richard Baldwin: “There’s been 12 appellate judges, supreme court and court of appeals judges who have endorsed in this race. Every single one of them has endorsed me. And again I think that’s a very powerful statement.”

The candidate who wins will take the Supreme Court seat in January.

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