7 Reasons Why You Should Avoid Oregon’s Courts
Let me be blunt: Due to unique conditions that exist only in Oregon — and I mean literally nowhere else in the United States — it is best to avoid having a legal problem there, if you can help it.
The following is a non-exhaustive list, based on years of research, records requests, interviews, and even personal experience, demonstrating how and why the Oregon judicial branch and the state agencies that comprise, regulate, and support it are so inexcusably bad.
And, as an FYI, everyone should pay attention to these problems, even if they have never stepped foot in a courthouse, and never plan to. Public corruption, civil rights violations, etc. affect us all.
So, hold your nose, we’re going in!
#1 Due process not available in Oregon
There is no “due process” in the state’s constitution, and, as crazy as it sounds, “the Oregon Supreme Court didn’t notice for 100 years.” They assumed it existed that whole time (!) but erred when they decided cases based on that mistaken assumption.
Regardless, the right to “due process” is guaranteed to everyone by the U.S. Constitution, so what’s the big deal, you ask…
Well, the thing with “due process” is that it’s not explicitly defined, and is instead like pornography: You know it when you see it.
And unfortunately, Oregon doesn’t know it when it sees it.
Consider that former Chief Justice Thomas Balmer, who has written extensively on due process, is the same guy who stripped a Portland man of those exact rights at the height of the #MeToo movement, based on allegations made not to the police, but instead to the man’s landlord. That landlord, a real-estate bazillionaire, had extraordinary access to law enforcement, prosecutors, the courts, and other state agencies.
Their target was a white male attorney, perhaps the most privileged class of people there is. Just imagine how Black Oregonians fare…
Oh wait, no need to imagine, because we know that they fare far worse, given the state’s history of institutional, load-bearing racism.
#2 Racism is the bedrock of Oregon’s justice system
Oregon is arguably the most racist state there is, having been specifically created as a whites-only utopia where, according to law, a Black would-be-settler would be publicly whipped 39 times every six months, until they left. It was illegal for Black people to move to Oregon as recently as 1926 — a time at which “one in 20 Oregonians” was a literal KKK member.
It’s hard to shake off racist laws and history like that, and Oregon’s courts simply have not. Oregon is one of two states (with Louisiana) that for decades allowed non-unanimous jury verdicts in criminal cases — a practice with “racist Jim Crow origins.”
It was just two years ago that the U.S. Supreme Court tried to help the two outlier states reenter the 19th, 20th, or 21st centuries, by deciding that non-unanimous juries were unconstitutional. However, hundreds of people convicted using the old system remain in jail, and Democrats in the state Senate killed a bill which would have brought a measure of relief.
Which is to say that conservative Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh were like, “that’s racist!” and purportedly progressive Oregon lawmakers shrugged.
On the other hand, who needs racist juries when you have racist judges? In 2015, a Black defendant was lured into a bench trial in front of Clackamas Judge Susie Norby, through explicit warnings by the court that local juries were “too racist” to see anything but the man’s color.
Norby bulldozed past the tainted police identification, pooh-poohed the defense’s expert witnesses, and referred to evidence that was never raised and did not exist. And when she had finally finished crapping on the man’s rights, she “rapped her bench verdict” at him — revealing that she was horrifically prejudiced, in every possible sense of the word.
#3 Public defense is in crisis mode
Speaking of crumbling infrastructure which disproportionately affects Black people: Oregon’s public defense system has been called out for years due to its dangerously inadequate staffing levels and inability to track workload. Watchdogs have called the agency “not constitutional,” and it is now officially in crisis.
Oregon is the only state in the union that hires its public defenders as contractors — an unnecessarily expensive, bureaucracy-heavy system that remains ripe for fraud and abuse.
Yet the guy who was brought in to fix the disgraceful mess was recently fired through the machinations of Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters, under whose watch the stink worsened. The fired director had previously complained about Walters’ “disrespectful manner” and “fantasy land” solutions, stating that:
“[Walters] needs to know that EVERYONE, and I mean everyone, is entitled to be treated with courtesy, dignity & respect. Not just people with power. I’m quite sure she doesn’t treat the governor or the speaker this way. This goes not only for me but my staff the public defenders & most importantly our clients.”
And as an important aside, one of Walters’ immediate “solutions” was to slap a Band-Aid on the severed artery: She asked every warm body with a bar card — including lawyers without defense experience — to grab a mop. She even suggested that they help fix Oregon’s mess for free.
Which is to say that it was not a viable solution at all, and which went directly against the Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel — an obligation under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
#4 Justice is for sale
Public corruption happens everywhere, but in Oregon, it’s a problem visible from space, if one cares to look: The erratic edges of fixed case dockets flash like red warning lights. Those dockets usually reveal that it is court staff prejudicing cases and judges, and then abusing their positions further to suppress inquiries into the official misconduct.
Oregon public corruption is often disguised as incompetence or impenetrable bureaucracy. Both are effective camouflage.
It should come as no surprise that such case-fixing happens on behalf of the politically well-connected. Consider a handful of civil suits against now-disbarred serial fraudster Lori Deveny, ex-president of the influential Oregon Women Lawyers association, and BFF of the state Bar.
One of those Multnomah lawsuits was filed by one of the 37 victims in the state’s criminal case against Deveny (for forgery, identity theft, and aggravated theft) to which she recently pleaded guilty. More than eighteen months after her victim should have been granted a default win in the civil suit, the court instead allowed Deveny to storm in and make a giant mess of things. A second lawsuit involving Deveny’s bank — and an estate case that she opened for her deceased housekeeper — also proceeded bizarrely in the same courthouse. These are not coincidences.
Of equal concern is that the Portland Police Bureau appears to have steered a minor sex abuse victim into Deveny’s arms back in 2014, after which Deveny corrupted the criminal proceedings and stole the minor’s settlement money.
#5 Transparency and accountability are pure fantasy
Whatever misconduct one experiences in Oregon’s courts, one shall depend upon the Judicial Department to cover it up and retaliate — in fact, that’s probably etched in Latin somewhere in Salem.
That’s in part due to the imaginary “open records laws” that officials love to bray about. The reality is that Oregon is anything but open, and worse: The Judicial Department (which includes the state Bar) is wholly exempt from the oversight that the Public Records Advocate provides. Without that resource, victims just spin their wheels, getting further mired in the court’s mud.
Making it even harder is that state law enforcement believes that crimes which occur in courthouses are for judges or the Bar to deal with — a disturbing relinquishment of their duties, not to mention simply absurd.
In fact, nobody is dealing openly with the misconduct happening at Oregon’s courts, especially not those who are perpetrating it.
Instead, it is evident that the statutory secrecy of the Judicial Fitness Commission is exploited on occasion, to quietly force the “retirement” of bad apples. The Commission only makes a public example of a single bad judge every few years. The rest — 99% of complainants — are instantaneously dismissed, branded “disgruntled,” and records of their grievances are kept away from the public. 99% is a statistically impossible number, and indicates that something has gone seriously awry at the Commission. Judges are elected officials, and claims of their misconduct should be a public record.
The complaint about the racist conduct of Judge Susie Norby is only public knowledge because the victim was brave enough to share the Commission’s letter: they “communicated its views about her conduct directly to her.”
That’s pretty vague. For all we know, the Commission gave Judge Norby a high-five.
#6 Mandatory malpractice insurance
Oregon is one of just two states in which attorneys must carry legal malpractice insurance. This creates an appearance of strong consumer protection for those harmed by incompetent lawyers.
Unfortunately, it’s a façade, because Oregon is the only state which mandates that the coverage be obtained through a single “insurer,” the PLF division of the Oregon State Bar — the same agency that licenses and regulates all local attorneys.
To illustrate the conflict that presents: Imagine if the DMV not only issued drivers licenses, but also had to insure every driver, investigate their car accidents, pay off their victims, and revoke their licenses when they deemed it warranted. That’s one big tangle of conflicting interests.
The tangle is spelled out more explicitly in the blistering dissenting opinion from a 1989 suit brought against the Bar, regarding its mandatory insurance scheme. (And it actually provides a great roadmap for an antitrust suit, hint hint.) That opinion scolded the Bar’s “private interests in the very field in which it regulates,” and its “lack of public accountability.”
Most importantly, in every other state without mandatory insurance, legal malpractice is a healthy and competitive area of law. In Oregon, good luck finding an attorney willing to sue their own wallet.
There is also evidence showing that the Bar has improperly paid off malpractice claims involving theft. Theft is a crime, not negligence, and it is absolutely not covered by the Bar’s insurance. The payout smells a lot like politics.
#7 The Oregon State Bar is effectively a protection racket
The Bar is a state agency which is supposed to regulate the legal profession and protect the public… that’s what the Bar tells the Oregon Legislature whenever it asks for new Bar laws to be passed. But in fact, those self-authored laws (which few legislators challenge)¹ are designed almost exclusively to protect the Bar — not attorneys, mind you, but Bar staff.
Currently, the agency is so politicized,² corrupted, and opaque, that it is an actual danger to both lawyers and consumers. And as noted above, the Bar has a direct financial interest in the affairs of both.
For their own benefit — and mostly to shield themselves from scrutiny and civil suit — the Bar has evidently: ignored all unlicensed practice of law claims; directed the poor into the arms of bad attorneys; dismissed founded complaints of attorney misconduct; retaliated against those victims; invaded their court cases; interfered with their reports to law enforcement; ignored reports of attorney crime; badly mishandled Lori Deveny’s files (and lied about it to the judge in her custodianship case); protected their worst attorneys, while going after their best (both presumably for pay); and even bribed witnesses. Phew!
Perhaps most importantly, the Bar has tampered with, destroyed, overpriced, or completely withheld their own public records, and misled the press about their conduct, in an attempt to thwart any negative reporting.
And speaking of their lack of transparency: four employees who worked on some of the Bar’s most notorious and bungled recent cases have “resigned.” Two had worked for the Bar for over a decade, and one was a prominent attorney and national activist — yet all left suddenly, without the fanfare usually exhibited when valued staffers leave for happy or voluntary reasons.
There are many people who simply cannot avoid Oregon’s courts, like criminal defendants (don’t assume they are all guilty), or those just trying to get their kid back (after a now-convicted attorney forged away their parental rights).
And because so many depend on the courts for justice, we must educate ourselves about how those courts are functioning — or malfunctioning — and force ourselves to care about the harm they are inflicting upon Oregon and its litigants.
¹ Re the testimony made in support of the Bar’s bill SB 768, on March 8 and April 28, 2021, by former Bar General Counsel Amber Hollister: if any legislators are interested in a breakdown of what the Bar actually got out of SB 768, I am here to discuss it, especially the custodianship statutes. It should also be noted that Hollister resigned less than two months after her strange performances.
² Mandatory bar associations (to which attorneys pay dues) should be apolitical, but the Oregon State Bar is anything but. Two lawyers are suing the Bar for its political speech, but a better case could be made that the Bar has been completely overtaken by Oregon Women Lawyers, a private specialty bar association.