The Willamette Lawyer Interview
Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice
Tom Balmer faces daunting challenges as Oregon Supreme Court chief justice: the state’s almost sole reliance on a single source of revenue has resulted in shuttered courts and laid-off employees. Balmer’s colleagues elected him chief justice of the Supreme Court last year after Chief Justice Paul J. De Muniz JD’75 stepped down. Balmer, who has served on the court since 2001, grew up in Portland, worked for the antitrust division of the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., and practiced civil law with a private firm before and after serving as a deputy attorney general under Oregon Attorney General Ted Kulongoski. Balmer, who played guitar in a high school band and is a fan of the Decembrists and the Shins, discussed his job, his temporary stint as a trial judge and the music he loves with Willamette Lawyer editor Lisa Grace Lednicer.
Q: What instruments do you play?
A: I studied piano for many years and now I don’t play as much as I’d like to. My mother was a piano teacher. So we had within the family somebody playing clarinet and trombone and bassoon and guitar and all of us had to study piano for at least a while. I also play a rudimentary guitar. I essentially know the same 14 chords I knew when I was 14. We get together with a group of friends and play Bob Dylan and The Grateful Dead and The Beatles and things like that every once in a while.
Q: If you were a DJ and you were playing the last song that you would ever play in your life, what would it be?
A: Chimes of Freedom (from) Mr. Tambourine Man. The combination of the enigmatic but ultimately hopeful Bob Dylan lyrics and the Rickenbacker 12 string — that’s the jangly guitar sound that you get from The Byrds — is a potent combination. If Roger McGuinn had done nothing other than to take Bob Dylan folk songs and set them to sort of a rock beat with that guitar, he would be revered as important in rock music history.
Q: Are there any changes that you either have made or are thinking of making to the De Muniz court?
A: I think that continuity is probably more significant for us at this point. Our court system is functioning but it is stressed right now. And under Paul we made a number of changes to try to increase efficiencies, reduce costs, and we really did squeeze out all the inefficiencies we’ve been able to. We are down 15 percent of our employees and we’re just not able to give Oregonians the full-time, full-service justice system that they need. The courts are now closed on the Fridays when the rest of state government has had furloughs. And to me that’s not acceptable. If you’re a victim of domestic violence and you need to get a restraining order against your abusive ex-spouse or boyfriend or girlfriend, it’s not helpful to have the courts open on Monday if you need to go into court and get a restraining order on Friday. We need to develop a model where we are getting sufficient funds to be a full-time court system across the state, and most of my efforts so far have been directed towards helping us make our case to the public and to the Legislature for better funding for the courts. A group of legislators have put together a courts caucus who want to advocate among their members on behalf of the courts. The bar and a lot of individual lawyers who’ve seen first hand the problems when trial judges don’t have a clerk who can help them out — who’ve prevailed in court but haven’t been able to get a judgment entered for a week or two — are being very supportive.
Q: What do you think would most surprise people about the Supreme Court?
A: People who come in and watch the Supreme Court say they’re surprised at how hard we work. If you come in to a Supreme Court argument and hear the questions that we ask, people will say, “Gosh, you guys really read all those briefs.” We say, “That’s why we were up until 1 a.m., because this is our job, this is what we’re supposed to do.” It’s why I feel very lucky and sort of humbled to be doing it. If you go and watch a judge like Janice Wilson (BA’76, JD’79) you would be unbelievably impressed at how much thought, how much knowledge of the law, how much knowledge of human interaction and how much tact but firmness goes into being a good trial judge. Being a trial judge is harder in a way than being a good appellate judge. As a trial judge, you’re much more likely to be subject to abuse by the parties because you’re making the decision right there — mom gets custody, dad doesn’t, you’re going to jail for five years. The combination of legal skills and ability to run the courtroom and stage manage a jury trial is very impressive to watch.
Q: You’ve been serving briefly on the benches of some of the circuit courts. What have you learned from that?
A: How important every case is to the people who are right there. When we see them at the Supreme Court level after another layer of review or two, it’s words on paper. But when we actually see the parties here, the person who’s going to go to jail, or the person who’s been injured, it makes what we do sort of take on more life. When you think of what a society does, whether it’s ancient Babylon or it’s Africa or Laos or any society, it has to protect itself against external forces, external invaders. But the next thing it has to do is to find a way to enforce its rules and to resolve disputes. And that’s what we do. One of my that what we do, what the courts do, is the second core function of government.
Q: If you could have one other job instead of this, what would it be?
A: Maybe full-time student? I would be interested in teaching or reading or learning religious studies. Studying the great religious texts of great religions would be fascinating. And there’s an aspect of law there too, of course.
Q: Did you ever consider following Ted Kulongoski into politics?
A: I thought about it a little bit. To me, the sort of bare-knuckles political campaigning these days is not what I want to spend my time doing. Life is too short. There are too many concerts to go to or cross-country ski routes to follow or bike rides to do.
Q: Can you in all honesty make the case that if the Legislature doesn’t fund you to the level you want, then the state will be in jeopardy of violating the Oregon Constitution?
A: I’m not going to make that argument. We don’t have the revenues we need to have in this state right now. We need to show the Legislature that we are good stewards of the state’s money. And I believe we can say that, look, we have cinched our belts up, we have wrung the inefficiencies out, look at how we are doing video arraignments so we don’t have to transport lawyers or prisoners or judges from one place to another, we’ve centralized these cases. We’re willing to share in the cutting that everybody else has to face. The other thing to keep in mind is we are less than three percent of the general fund budget. So 10 million dollars, which is a rounding error for K through 12 education, or the Oregon Health Plan, makes a huge difference in terms of us being able to decide these child custody cases. Or put somebody in jail. Or do a drug court, keep somebody out of jail and in a job while we try and get them drug treatment.
Q: Shouldn’t you not only put your energy into more money for the courts but add your voice to the idea that the Department of Human Services needs more funding and K-12 needs more funding because if we keep kids in school then you won’t see them in court?
A: They’re the ones that ought to be helping us, frankly. And one of the things that I think the governor would like to do over time is to look at the system more holistically. Let me give an example of drug courts. We can sentence 50 people in a morning for various drug offenses and send them off to jail or probation or whatever. A drug court docket, that’s 15, 20 minutes with the defendant. That is very expensive in terms of judicial time. Look at the savings, though. We’re saving on public safety dollars and public safety generally. We’re keeping them in a job, hopefully, and they’re paying taxes, so the system overall saves money even though it costs more on the court side.
Q: Maybe it’s better to fight for your own turf?
A: The problem is nobody’s really looking out for us. We’re it. We can’t bring a thousand cute kids down on education day and say, “Fund the schools.” If lawyers come down to advocate for the courts we hope they’ll be listened to, but the fact is, they’re not the most popular group around.
“People who come in and watch the Supreme Court say they’re surprised at how hard we work.” -Tom Balmer