(the review) During my time in the Tualatin and Lake Oswego newsrooms, I slowly worked my way through the judicial system.
The trip was nonlinear, jumping from municipal court to the state Supreme Court by way of county courthouses, the state Court of Appeals, the Land Use Board of Appeals and the parole board at the Oregon State Correctional Institution (OCSI) — in no predictable order.
The complaints were criminal and civil, ranging from murder and federal charges to state land use law.
I can tell you that the Clackamas County Courthouse is second only to OSCI for having the strictest security. (I sacrificed the mirror of an $11 compact to make it to a hearing on time). I can tell you that U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon is a joy to watch on the bench, with a folksy outspokenness that hints at his lineage — playwright Neil Simon is, after all, his uncle. There’s a family resemblance if you look hard enough, and the honorable Simon always comes through with moments of brash wit that (and perhaps this is me reaching) bring to mind his uncle’s parlor comedies.
But I can also tell you that I got a philosophical crash-course in our legal process three floors up from Simon’s bench, in the courtroom of federal Judge Michael Mosman.
In August 2012, I covered the wrongful death lawsuit against Washington County and the two sheriff’s deputies who had shot and killed Metzger teen Lukus Glenn in 2006. Attorneys for Glenn’s parents argued the suicidal teen did not pose a threat to law enforcement, and emphasized only four minutes had elapsed between the deputies’ arrival on the scene and 18-year-old Lukus’ death.
I was struck by the strange poetry of translating often staid and impersonal legal language into enforceable findings. Mosman dismissed the jury twice before shutting down the line of questioning pursued by an attorney representing Washington County. The attorney had asked witnesses about Lukus’ alcohol use, and Mosman reminded him that punitive damages would be awarded based on emotional pain and suffering — Lukus’ and his family’s — rather than on lost wages, so it was inappropriate to establish the young man’s “habits of thrift and sobriety.”
Mosman later instructed the jurors to decide whether Lukus’ Fourth Amendment rights had been violated. The jury decided they had — that in taking his life, the deputies had most certainly subjected Lukus to unreasonable search and seizure.
Showing deference to a robed judge and other signs of ritual in the court belie how conversational legal proceedings can be, and how the law, which can at times seem immutable, is essentially up for discussion — discussion that can be wonky or existential, and often both.
During my earlier altweekly career, I interviewed journalist Joe Klein, author of the political roman a clef “Primary Colors.” He was looking ahead to the 2008 presidential elections and criticized what he saw as a stunning lack of authenticity in politics — a common complaint, but for him, a worsening phenomenon. Klein felt that handlers and focus groups had killed “creative innocence” for politicians. There were few moments of true humanity, he felt.
And this is why I have found court assignments so compelling. There is no shortage of humanity, and moments of authenticity among all involved, sometimes despite themselves.
During a murder trial for former Lake Oswego resident Adrien Wallace, the defense moved for a mistrial after a Clackamas County sheriff’s sergeant looked visibly upset while presenting photos from the crime scene. Judge Jeffrey S. Jones rejected the motion and refused to instruct the jury to ignore what he viewed as “a human reaction to a horrific tragedy.”
But then, the law often seems to take a bureaucratic approach to staggering loss. Monetary damages can become shorthand for acknowledging profound suffering; criminal sentencing becomes an odd kind of social and emotional math.
For that reason, I am convinced no one has a more surreal job than the member of a parole board. Judges have no enviable task, but it’s hardly a daily duty for them to sit down with a defendant and ask him to not only answer for his crime, but also to recount step by step how he carried it out and then detail how much he’s changed since then.
I watched as a parole board did this with Conrad Engweiler, the former Lake Oswego resident who admitted to raping and killing a classmate when he himself was a teen. The process was hardly clinical, and the board members were hardly dispassionate. Kristin Winges-Yanez’s voice shook when interviewing the victim’s father, and she was clearly holding back tears.
I used to believe I had a mind for the law, or at least for a well-constructed essay. A rather glib example: Years ago, when the transmission in my Honda Civic hybrid died a sputtering death, I wrote an eight-page, at times melodramatic letter to Honda of America detailing how I was the latest victim of a well-documented design flaw. I argued that because I had bought the vehicle certified pre-owned, I shouldn’t be on the hook for a $5,000 repair. I attached pages of service records and citations. I got my new transmission at no charge.
This, in my mind, was how the law worked. Contracts were by the letter, and a detailed argument supported by receipts or other relevant documents wins you justice.
But my mind was even further changed, just over a month ago, in Judge Simon’s courtroom. Simon was considering whether the Bank of Oswego was charter-bound to pay the legal fees of former CEO Dan Heine, who is facing 27 federal charges related to his activities at the bank. There was more than a little confusion with the wording of the contract.
This was perhaps my favorite moment in court, for all it taught me about the ongoing human role in law. Simon had been repeatedly saying he really had no idea what he would decide. I’m paraphrasing (though not by much) when I recall him say that he would write up a decision and see if it stuck for him.
Perhaps it was that famous Simon wit. But for me, it came across as accessible and authentic and, in the end, so very human.