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Judicial candidates throw verbal darts in televised debate

Jackson County judicial candidates faced off Monday night in a live, televised debate, and although there were no raised voices or swinging fists, some verbal punches were thrown.

In the race for Position No. 1, Deputy District Attorney Allan Smith said he believes the current Circuit Court bench is unbalanced because five of the seven judges ' including his opponent, Judge Lorenzo Mejia ' come from the defense side of the law rather than the prosecution.

That's why I decided to run, he said, to give the voters a choice.

But Mejia said his legal background, which includes twice as many years practicing law as Smith, does not affect his rulings.

Yes, I was a public defender for 13 years, Mejia said. I left that job. I know the difference between an advocate and an arbiter. The fact I was a public defender has no influence on the way I try cases.

In the other race to fill a new judicial position, No. 8, attorneys Joe Charter and Bill Purdy sparred over the merits of age, recent trial experience and comments made during a previous debate.

The League of Women Voters hosted Monday night's debates on Rogue Valley Community Television. On Nov. 5, Jackson County voters will elect two Circuit Court judges for the first time. In Position 1, Mejia was appointed by Gov. John Kitzhaber four months ago to fill the position of Judge Ross Davis, who retired. Smith is challenging him.

In Position 8, Purdy and Charter are going a second round in their bids to be a judge. The two vied for the position in the primary, but because a write-in candidate got some of the votes, neither was able to get the 50 percent of the votes needed to win.

During the debate, many of the themes sounded in the first go-around were hauled out again. Charter noted that because Oregon has a mandatory retirement age of 75 for judges, Purdy could serve only one full term if elected, while he could serve five. Charter insisted that he was a better investment, while Purdy contended that some voters want quality over quantity.

Then a woman phoned the live call-in show and said she thought comments made by Purdy in a previous debate were childish. At that forum, Charter brought up the fact that Purdy had failed to get his picture in the primary election Voters' Pamphlet. He said it would be a mistake to vote for someone who couldn't make a deadline. Purdy had replied that if people wanted to make a mistake they could vote for Charter.

In Monday's debate, Charter said he considered Purdy's comment a personal dig.

Purdy replied: Joe was the one who raised the issue.

Then they looked sourly at each other until the next question came.

In the debate between Mejia and Smith, Mejia emphasized his experience (he's tried some 400 cases to Smith's 100), his community involvement, including being a board member for La Clinica del Valle, and his belief in making sure justice is meted out fairly.

I believe the purposes of the court are numerous, but the most important is to do individual justice in individual cases, Mejia said.

Smith countered that he has real-world experience and emphasized his varied background, including being a Navy fighter pilot and a small-business owner. He noted that as a young person he went to work as soon as he could, taking jobs including flipping burgers and cleaning the sewers of the city of Eugene.

I'm a firm believer in individual responsibility, he said.

Reach reporter Dani Dodge at 776-4471, or e-mail