Judge candidates discuss qualifications, concerns at forum

A judicial shortage in Linn County Circuit Court and the need to help unrepresented litigants were two big topics as candidates for two open judgeships made their cases last week to voters at a forum held at the River Center church in Lebanon.

The Sept. 25 event, sponsored by the Lebanon Chamber of Commerce, brought together incumbent Fay Stetz-Waters and challenger Michael Wynhausen, who are running for Position 1 in the Nov. 6 election, and Rachel Kittson-MaQatish and Teri Plagmann, who are facing off for the vacant Position 3 seat. Those positions will be voted on by voters throughout the county.

After introducing themselves, candidates answered two pre-circulated questions and then answered questions submitted by the audience. They each were allowed a closing statement.  The forum was divided into separate sections for the judicial positions, so the candidates appeared in pairs.

Fay Stetz-Waters, Michael Wynhausen, Rachel Kittson-MaQatish, and Teri Plagmann

Linn County Circuit Court Judge Position 1

Fay Stetz-Waters was appointed in October 2017 by Gov. Kate Brown to fill a vacancy created by the retirement of Judge Carol R. Bispham, who retired in June of that year.

Stetz-Waters grew up in Baltimore, Md. and served in the U.S. Marine Corps and as a police dispatcher in Connecticut before entering Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in Portland in 2002.

After earning her law degree in 2005, she worked for an Oregon State Bar program “to ensure that the makeup of the legal community reflects those it serves,” according to biographical information on her website, www.judgefaystetzwaters.com.

She has worked as a civil rights investigator at Oregon State University; as a hearings officer for Oregon Board of Parole and Post-Prison Supervision; as an administrative law judge in the state Office of Administrative Hearings, adjudicating cases for the Employment Department; and as a Legal Aid attorney in Albany, where she moved in 2007, representing indigent clients in civil cases.
She has served as president of Linn-Benton Women Lawyers, vice president of the Linn-Benton Bar Association, and as a board member of the Center Against Rape and Domestic Violence.

In her introduction, Stetz-Waters devoted the majority of her time to comments on how much she appreciated Lebanon’s “values of friendliness, community and optimism” as evidenced at community events she has attended and a visit to the Veterans Home.

She told the audience she was the Oregon State Bar’s top pick for the position for which she’s running.

“That means that the Linn County Bar members endorsed me for this position,” she said, adding that they did so when she first applied for Bispham’s vacant seat.

She said she represents “a broad range of experience” and a “unique perspective that is beyond the criminal justice lens.

“We do not need a judge that is looking for a bad guy, who is looking at things in terms of black and white. Quite frankly, that is going to be damaging for our bench if we have already made up our minds who is guilty and who is not, who deserves a chance and who does not.”

Michael Wynhausen, a graduate of Jesuit High School in Portland and the University of Oregon School of Law (1996), has worked in district attorney’s offices in Lane, Union, Benton and Linn counties, starting when he was in law school.

Currently a deputy district attorney for Linn County, he has prosecuted cases ranging from “petty theft to drug possession, DUII to vehicular homicide, disorderly conduct to domestic assault, sexual assault to murder,” according to his website, www.wynhausen.com.

In addition to his work as a prosecutor, Wynhausen has served as the vice president of Linn/Benton Bar Association, as an executive member of the board of directors of the ABC House in Albany and as president of the Albany Kiwanis Club. He has been an instructor at the National District Attorney’s Association Advocacy Center in Columbia, S.C.

In his introduction, Wynhausen emphasized his longtime experience as a prosecutor – 22 years, of which 15 have been in Linn County.

“For a position like this, experience matters,” he told the audience. “I know the judges, I know the court staff and I know how it works.

“We’re all attorneys. We all have different experiences. We all have different focuses in our practices. What’s really important is litigation experience. I have 22 years of litigation experience. I have prosecuted thousands of cases over my career, literally, and tried hundreds. I have the experience for this position.”

Wynhausen told the audience he had more litigation experience than any of the other three judicial candidates at the forum.

“That is the experience that is appropriate to the position, important to the position,” he said, adding that his supporters include two county commissioners and  “the entire law enforcement community of Linn County.”

Linn County Circuit Court Judge Position 3

Rachel Kittson-MaQatish grew up in Sweet Home and, according to her website Vote4Rachel.com, “made some poor choices” and spent time at a shelter home before becoming an unwed mother. As a single working mother, she progressed to the Willamette University College of Law, thanks in part to scholarship assistance, where she graduated with a law degree and has since worked in Sweet Home and Lebanon as an attorney, most recently as an associate and then a partner at Morley Thomas Law.

She has been involved in a wide range of community activities, including founding the Hero Half Marathon and serving as president of the Sweet Home Economic Development Group, and has been honored as the Linn Benton Community College as a Distinguished Alumni (2017), Lebanon’s Woman of the Year (2014) and Sweet Home’s First Citizen (2014).

She referenced her local roots in her introduction, noting that she’s lived 40 years in the county and has grandchildren living locally. She said her courtroom experience includes criminal, family, civil commitments and personal injury, serving as a Municipal Court prosecutor for the City of Lebanon, and handling civil commitments for the county.

She also expressed gratitude for the support the community has shown her.

“I’m in debt to you, absolutely in debt to you. So I raise my hand, willing to serve and continue to give to this community for what you give to me.”

Teri Plagmann was born and raised on a grass seed farm between Lebanon and Albany and attended Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark, where she was the youngest student to argue a case in front of the Oregon Court of Appeals.

After working in various areas of the law, including agricultural and water rights, family law, civil litigation and appeals, she opened her own practice in Albany in 2008, focusing on family law, estate planning and probate.

She has been involved in a variety of outreaches and advocacy groups for special education needs, detailed on her website, teriplagmannforjudge.com.

She has been involved in the Oregon State Bar Association’s Unlawful Practice of Law committee, the State Lawyer’s Assistance Committee and the Family Law Section of the Oregon State Bar.

Plagmann emphasized her local roots, noting that she has attended local schools and is a fourth-generation resident of the area.

“I want to make sure our community is safe, that we have an efficient courtroom, that we are able to serve our community, that we are able to continue the tradition that’s been on the bench for many years in our community as well as uphold the standards that we have,” Plagmann said.

Since all participants answered the same pre-submitted questions, pertinent and unique exerpts from their responses are reported here in alphabetical order.

As legal costs rise, more and more litigants are using the court system without the assistance of an attorney. What policy should the court implement to assist litigants who are not familiar with the system but are entitled to due process?

Kittson-MaQatish began by relating how, as a 19-year-old single mother, she was involved as a pro se (without an attorney) litigant in a child custody case.

“I understand how scary the legal system is without an education.”

She said online aids provide more help now and the Linn County Circuit Court provides a staffer who, while not allowed to give legal advice, can ensure forms are ready to be filed. Also, she said, the local litigants can now choose the option of an “informal domestic relations trial,” in which the judge asks questions and rules of formal courtroom evidence are relaxed.

“For a pro se litigant who has no experience about trials or how to conduct one, this may be the appropriate process for them,” she said.

In addition, Kittson-MaQatish noted that the county has implemented a “mental health protocol” aimed at reducing recidivism rates, which brings county mental health staffers into the process to help move “serious mentally ill” defendants out of the court system and into treatment.

She said she would improve “education and access to services” for the general public.

Plagmann cited an Oregon Bar Association study that determined 80 percent of litigants in civil cases are unrepresented.

“That actually ends up causing backlog not just on civil docket but on criminal docket as well,” she said.

She said one solution she considers a priority would be to improve alternative dispute resolution. “That’s something we definitely need to work on,” Plagmann said.  “Other counties actually already handle that process by having settlement conferences mandatory on cases where there is a pro se person. Linn County does not do that.

She said other counties also provide litigation orientation for unrepresented litigants.

“That is something that does take up time in the courtroom, when you have someone representing themselves,” she said. “They don’t necessarily know the court process.”

She said providing help to pro se litigants would “help the entire (court) docket across the board.”

Stetz-Waters referenced her experience as a Legal Aid attorney in advocating for more help for pro se litigants than the services mentioned by other candidates.

“So much more needs to be done,” she said. “In the courtroom I pay attention to this. I know people have different skills, so I try to make sure that everyone understands the reason for the hearing, the purpose for the hearing, and procedures and rules of the law so people feel comfortable and know what to expect.”

She said it is sometimes difficult to remain neutral “because people want help.”

She listed other options for pro se litigants, such as legal assistance programs and limited-scope representation, but said voters can address the issue.

“You have a voice in how your resources are used. You can urge legislators and commissioners to spend resources for effective pro se representation so everyone has legal representation.”

Wynhausen said that forms provided by the court allow people “more and more” to handle cases themselves.

“I think that’s a way to allow people access to the courts, by making those forms more accessible, by creating explanations that people can understand – things that are given in lay terms rather than in legalese so people can do things themselves,” he said, noting that such could apply to divorces, tort claims and a variety of other cases.

“By empowering our citizens, by offering them materials, explanations and instructions for taking care of these things themselves, they can avoid very expensive legal costs for minor legal actions.”

What, in your view, is the most significant problem currently facing the Linn County courts and how can that challenge be addressed?

All four candidates focused directly or indirectly on the shortage of Circuit Court judges in Linn County.

“We have a community of 125,000 folks and we only have five judges – the same number we’ve had since the 1940s,” Stetz-Waters said.  “We have grown since then and become more litigious since then and people have a greater need.”

“You know, justice delayed is justice denied. People are waiting a long time to have their cases settled. We have cases that are over two years old and people are waiting to have resolution on those matters. Without the proper number of judges, cases are just languishing.”

Wynhausen was not optimistic that the judge shortage would be remedied.

“Judges are a state office; they’re funded by the state so there is little we can do here in Linn County to address that issue,” he said. “We’ve been due for a judge for quite some time and the reality is we’re not going to get it. So what do we do? We need to have some practical solutions, not hoping for the state to save us.”

He noted that the local legal community is “collegial” in the criminal law area and “we settle 95 percent of our cases short of trial. That is something I would want to encourage in other areas.”

Also, he said, a “crushing docket” is a big problem.

“What ways can we find to reduce the docket in this county? We need better alternative dispute resolution. All the judges engage in settlement conferences, but some of them are better at it than others. It would be valuable to have a training in Linn County for all the judges to become experts in dispute resolution and try to settle these cases without going through the long process of full litigation and trial.”

Stetz-Waters said that when Linn County had a pro tem (temporary) judge who handled the hearings docket, things moved noticeably faster in the other courtrooms.

“We need six judges,” she said. “We were supposed to have six, but instead we got a case management system that has us moving the cases through 15 minutes at a time. We call it ‘Justice 15 minutes at a time’ and it’s not fair to our residents.

“We need to have a system in which people can come to court and have their case heard so they can get resolution and move on with their lives.”

Plagmann said the implementation of the electronic court process has been a positive step in improving efficiency, but judges are still needed.

“We need to make sure Linn County residents have the same resources available that they have in other counties,” she said, noting that Multnomah, Lane and Clackamas counties are building or preparing to build new courthouses. “We don’t even have the sixth judge that we need.”

Kittson-MaQatish didn’t mention the need for a judge specifically, but she said the “time” it takes for case resolution and the lack thereof for attorneys in the courtroom is a problem.

“I do civil commitments for the county and I’m also given one hour in order to prove that an individual is mentally ill, that this causes them to be dangerous to themselves, or dangerous to somebody else, or that they have an inability to care for themselves,” she said. “And that commitment is the least restrictive. That’s all I’m given, is that short window, to prove something extremely important.”

She said she has similar challenges in family law cases.

“So how do you solve that problem? Yes, we need more judges. But you also solve it with experience. You need to elect judges that are ready to go to work, that have diverse experience and litigation experience.”

The other two questions answered by each set of candidates were from the audience and differed between the candidates for the two positions.

Position 1 Candidates

What is the role of a Circuit Court judge in the community?

Stetz-Waters said that a judge must be fair, impartial, “treat everyone with respect,”  and be “a leader, a role model, and “represent all of the values that come with the office.”

She said she has learned from her Marine Corps experience to “place reserve” on what she says in public because “I am the judge and what I say will be repeated. I am mindful of that responsibility and mindful of the burden it is to carry this community’s tragedies and harm that has come to our people. And it takes a very important person and strong person to be able to hold that and keep those confidences.”

Wynhausen said a judge must be “a fair and impartial arbiter of the law” and “the conscience of the community.”

From his experience as a prosecutor, he said, he’s learned to distinguish between two types of defendants in the courtroom: “Those that have a bad day, make a mistake, or are going through rough period in their life, and those who habitually violate our laws and victimize our citizens.”

He said he believes there is a difference and they should be dealt with accordingly.

“The lion’s share of the crime in our community is committed by a fraction of the offenders. I can recognize who needs to be given a chance, given treatment, given an opportunity because they are going to take it – as opposed to the people who commit crime after crime after crime, and create victim after victim after victim.

“Those are the people we need to identify and remove from our community to protect the citizens of Linn County.”

A large portion of the judge’s workload involves non-criminal cases. What’s your previous experience with non-criminal law?

Wynhausen said as a prosecutor he has handled civil commitment hearings, child support enforcement and juvenile delinquency.  He said his experience in litigation has prepared him to manage courtroom proceedings. He said judges who lack courtroom experience will make mistakes, allowing evidence they shouldn’t or preventing evidence that could exonerate a defendant.

“You can have innocent people being convicted of crimes, you can have people who have been grievously injured not get sufficient recompense for their injuries. Bad things happen when judges don’t have the proper experience.”

Stetz-Waters said her practice as a Legal Aid attorney has been “generalist.”

She’s handled family law, elder law, contract disputes, consumer fraud – a “broad” range of cases.

Position 3 Candidates

Describe how your history of in-courtroom experience qualifies you for the position you seek.

Plagmann referenced the fact that she has 21 years of trial attorney experience, starting when she was in law school, and said she has the ability to “be fair, the ability to understand the clients,” to be able to reason logically and analytically, and have a “good judicial temperment.”

“The first thing people want when they come into court is a judge who will listen to them.

“You’re there in court because you have something that is important to you. You want a person in a black robe who is a complete stranger to you to hear your case, and have enough time.

“You need to have somebody on the bench who has those skills, who’s able to judge fairly and who you feel, when you walk into a courtroom, will be fair and just to you.”

Kittson-MaQatish related how, the previous Friday, she spent more than half a day at the courthouse for a family law trial, in which she was able to negotiate a resolution with the other party in the hallway. She worked Monday on personal injury cases, then spent Tuesday prosecuting cases in Lebanon Municipal Court before heading to the county courthouse for a civil commitment case.

She said her general practice experience will benefit her on the bench, and “if you elect me, I promise I will work hard and I will listen to you if you are in my courtroom.”

How can courts and the judicial system help solve the opioid crisis?

Kittson-MaQatish said judges are very dependent on attorneys to help understand clients’ needs and to come up with solutions.

“They can’t do it alone,” she said. “That is a crisis we all, as a community, have to take part in.”

She said all the players need to “to create a smarter justice system.”

Plagmann said the opioid problem is “also a mental health problem.”

She said recent cuts of some 20 positions in the county Health Department have exacerbated “a significant problem” because “when you have people with addiction issues, lots of times you have depression issues or some other mental health problem that goes right along with it.”

She called for timely and responsive treatment for people who are incarcerated.

“It doesn’t work very well when somebody is only offered treatment after they are convicted of a case. Sometimes that may be nine months or a year, or maybe two years. That’s quite a long time before somebody finally gets into treatment.”