State Supreme Court justice submits resignation

Oregon Supreme Court Justice R. William Riggs will leave his position by the end of this year, potentially clearing the way for Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski to make his second appointment to the state’s highest court.

Riggs informed Kulongoski – himself a former Supreme Court justice, and one-time colleague of Riggs – about his decision to step down in a letter Wednesday.

His departure comes as three candidates are vying for a spot on the seven-member court to replace former Chief Justice Wallace Carson, and as a ballot measure is circulating to require appellate justices to be elected by geographic district, instead of on a statewide basis.

“I don’t intend to retire in the sense of sitting back and watching Oprah in the afternoon,” said Riggs, 67. “I think that there will be some good opportunities for me in private life.”

Riggs, a Wilsonville resident who received his law degree from the University of Oregon, has served on the court since September 1998, when former Gov. John Kitzhaber appointed him, a Democrat. He won re-election to a six-year term in 2004. Prior to that, he served on the Oregon Court of Appeals, and as a Multnomah County circuit court judge. Riggs is also a former president of the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association and founded the Oregon Academy of Family Law Practitioners.

He has served during a tumultuous time for the state’s highest court, during which the justices have had to weigh in on topics like assisted suicide, medical marijuana and property rights.

Asked to recall landmark opinions during his time on the bench, Riggs cited the unanimous decision he wrote upholding the legislative redistricting plan designed by Democratic Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, which was challenged by the GOP. And he was one of six judges who ruled that a Death Row inmate convicted of raping and murdering a toddler should be set free because the state had failed to provide the inmate with a speedy trial.

But he was in the minority in recent high court decisions on reforms to the state’s pension system, in which the court ruled that longtime workers have a right to a guaranteed level of earnings in their retirement accounts, but that the Legislature could change aspects of the retirement system.

If Riggs waits until the end of the year to leave, Kulongoski will name a successor, who would remain in the seat until the 2008 primary. If Riggs leaves earlier, the date of his departure will determine whether the position will be up in the Nov. 7 general election.

Riggs told Kulongoski he plans to leave by Dec. 31 but could leave sooner if “a professional opportunity causes me to advance that date somewhat.”

That could open the door for Kulongoski to nominate one of the three candidates for Carson’s seat to replace Riggs: Appeals Court Judge Virginia Linder, Pendleton lawyer Gene Hallman or former Labor Commissioner and gubernatorial candidate Jack Roberts.

Each has campaigned on diversity – Linder would be the only woman in what has been an all-male body since the departure of Susan Leeson in 2003, Hallman would be the only justice to live east of the Cascade Range, and Roberts has cast himself as a candidate with practical experience outside the state’s legal and judicial circles.

If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, there will be a run-off between the top two vote getters in November.

Kulongoski’s last appointment to the Supreme Court came in 2003, when he tapped Justice Rives Kistler, a former Court of Appeals judge from Portland. That appointment raised a few eyebrows among those who had expected the governor to look outside the Willamette Valley, and for a woman, to serve on the court.