40 could reshape state’s highest court

    A measure that would require Oregon Supreme Court judges to be elected by district is the source of partisan debate, and if passed could fundamentally reshape the highest court in Oregon.

    Oregon Ballot Measure 40 would require Oregon Supreme Court judges – as well as Court of Appeals judges – to reside in and be elected by districts based on population.

    Measure 40 is similar to Ballot Measure 22, a 2002 measure that was narrowly defeated with 51 percent of the vote.

    The measure was put on the ballot by FreedomWorks, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. Co-chaired by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey and former White House counsel C. Boyden Gray, FreedomWorks has a set of political changes it wishes to enact, called the Freedom Agenda, that includes this measure.

    FreedomWorks spokesman Russ Walker did not respond to multiple phone calls concerning Ballot Measure 40. In support of the measure, the FreedomWorks website states that Measure 40 will break an “urban, liberal stranglehold on the courts.”

    ”These activist judges have been usurping the will of the people and legislating from the bench – nullifying the will of the voters on matters like property rights, crime-victims rights, term limits, and that’s just not right!” the FreedomWorks website states.

    Portland State political science Professor Richard Clucas said that how a person votes on this measure reflects what they feel the role of the Supreme Court is – to enforce laws or represent voters, much the way Congress currently does. If judges are elected by district, he said, it could have the effect of politicizing the court.

    ”Measure 40 has the potential to change the composition of the Supreme Court, and in turn, the court’s behavior,” Clucus said.

    Measure 40 would create seven Supreme Court districts and five districts for the 10-member Court of Appeals.

    PSU student body Vice President Jesse Bufton said that the student government will be educating students on eight of the 10 ballot measures, but Measure 40 will not be one of them. He said student government did not feel that students will be as interested in this measure and said that Measure 40’s impact could be large, but it would be a long-term effect.

    ”We are interested in the ones that will directly impact students the quickest,” Bufton said.

    Kento Azegami of the PSU Democrats said he thinks that Measure 40 will have the same kind of direct impact on students that the other measures do.

    ”This could have a major impact on student’s lives,” Azegami said. “They are citizens of Oregon like everyone else.”

    The City Club of Portland, an opponent of the measure, said in a report released in August that the measure would politicize the courts by turning judges into representatives. The report says that the responsibilities of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals justices are to the entire state, and not particular constituencies.

    ”Judicial impartiality is too valuable to jeopardize by district for the sake of a more regionally balanced court,” the final resolution of the report states.

    Azegami said the Democrats have been educating students about Measure 40. He said many students were not even aware of the measure and that all Oregonians should look at it closely.

    ”Measure 40, if it passes, will be very damaging for our judiciary,” Azegami said. “It’s going to have the effect of turning away qualified justices.”

    Bufton said one of the reasons that this measure was created is the perception of a partisan divide in the state, the city versus the rural area, a problem he also sees on campus. He said both Republicans and Democrats are fully capable of working together.

    ”In my experience as a student,” Bufton said, “there isn’t as big of a partisan divide as many people perceive.”

    Associated Students of Portland State University officially has no stance on any ballot measures, but Bufton can see a problem for PSU students if Measure 40 passes.

    ”Voting for judges by district for the most part would take some voting power away from Portland State students,” Bufton said. “On the flip-side, students in other parts of Oregon would get more voting power.”

    The Oregon Supreme Court is made up of seven elected justices, including a six-year term chief justice. The United States Supreme Court is the only court that can reverse or modify a verdict of the Oregon Supreme Court.

    According to the official voting guide, some of the groups against the measure are the Democratic Party of Oregon, the Pacific Green Party of Oregon, the League of Women Voters of Oregon, and three former governors of Oregon, including the last Republican governor, Vic Atiyeh. Supporting the measure are gubernatorial candidate Ron Saxton and three state senators, including Republican Sen. Doug Whitsett.

    Clucus said that the court is made up of Democrats and Republicans, and they tend to vote unanimously on most issues. He said the Oregon judicial system tends to strive for a consistent philosophy, and they are not partisan as much as pragmatic.