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The race for Circuit Court judge

The race for Circuit Court judge


defense vs. prosecution

After four months on the bench, Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Lorenzo Mejia says he already has the hang of the job and is doing it well.

I find myself almost like a parent, especially in talking to defendants and trying to correct their behavior, Mejia said. I think a real important part of my job is to try to prevent future crimes and create sentences that will do that.

But Deputy District Attorney Allan Smith says he's running against Mejia in the general election because people deserve a choice between someone who comes from defending the accused, like Mejia, and someone who has prosecuted criminals, like him.

It's natural for any human being to look at things through the lens of their own experiences, Smith said. I don't think you can avoid that ' the last five judges appointed to the bench have for the most part had backgrounds in civil law or criminal defense.

Mejia, 48, and Smith, 44, are running for the Circuit Court judge position vacated by Ross Davis when he retired in the summer. Mejia is a 13-year veteran of the public defender's office and has handled everything from misdemeanor cases to murder cases. Smith, a seven-year veteran of the district attorney's office, has handled the same breadth of cases, although he's spent much of the past seven years working large drug cases.

After Davis announced his pending retirement, Mejia applied for appointment to Davis' seat along with three other attorneys, including state Rep. Rob Patridge. In April, Gov. John Kitzhaber appointed Mejia. Kitzhaber's staff praised Mejia's judicial temperament and community involvement.

Smith signed up to run against Mejia, just four days before the filing deadline for the general election. Smith says he went into law school with the desire to become a judge and went into the prosecutor's office because he felt that job would best position him for the judge post. Then after Judge Davis retired, a whole bunch of people came to me and said 'we really need you to do this.'

I want to do something where I can help other people, serve my country and that I'll be good at, Smith said. It feels limited in the prosecutor's office ' the judge has a greater impact in personal lives.

A former Navy fighter pilot, small business owner, and district manager for Chrysler Corp., Smith says the breadth of his experience makes him a better choice for judge.

Several people who work with Smith in the District Attorney's Office say Mejia only thinly veils vestiges of his public-defender past with his judicial robe.

Deputy District Attorney Holly Smith, who estimates she has been before Mejia 20 times, said she's seen Mejia fill out paperwork for defendants who don't have attorneys, reveal confidences about people he previously defended and then sentence them, raise the issue of race before a jury, and suggest a defendant plead guilty to a charge different than the one his attorney and the prosecutor had agreed to. She said all those issues should be dealt with by attorneys, and not the judge.

A judge needs to be unbiased, but up there (Mejia) is still a defense attorney, she said.

One of Smith's chief supporters and a former deputy district attorney himself, Rep. Patridge criticizes Mejia, saying that as a public defender he was unapproachable and went out of his way to belittle police officers. Patridge also says people should consider Mejia's past when they vote: In 1976 and 1977, Mejia was convicted three times of driving under the influence of intoxicants.

It's a matter of character, Patridge said. It is a legitimate question for voters to ask ' every employer in town asks the same question and the state bar asks the same question.

I think it's an issue of who our community wants ... to lead it.

Mejia, who talked publicly about his DUIIs after his appointment, says he believes that Patridge is still upset with being passed over for the judicial appointment. Mejia noted that he's gotten bipartisan support for his campaign, including an endorsement from Republican County Commissioner Ric Holt.

Mejia was chosen 4-1 over Smith in a poll of Jackson County attorneys. Mejia also has been endorsed by all the Jackson County Circuit Court judges. And Judge Davis is chairman of Mejia's election campaign.

Lorenzo is a man of great internal integrity, Davis said. He carries himself and practices law in a fashion that lends dignity to our process.

Davis said what some prosecutors may see as bias, such as filling out forms for defendants, is really just simple human decency.

It speaks to a man who doesn't think he's so fancy he can't help someone fill out a form ' that someone criticized that boggles my mind, Davis said. Lorenzo is really fair and firm and one never needs to worry about him coddling anybody.

Mejia said he's bothered by the way Smith and Patridge are conducting the campaign.

I'm going to make my decisions on individual cases, Mejia said. (Smith's) selling point is he's prosecution-oriented. There are individuals who are so bad-assed, that there ain't nothing to do but separate them from society. But we don't have the resources to do that with everybody. ... And quite frankly that's not the right thing for most people.

Mejia said the right thing for most people is to plug them into programs that will help them correct their way of life.

And, he pointed out, as a public defender he had cases where police arrested the wrong guy, such as the highly publicized case of a Talent man arrested for an Ashland rape. He was cleared by DNA evidence. Eventually, another man was convicted.

The judge has to be neutral ' it's for the prosecution to make their case and the defense to make their case, Mejia said. When you start out saying 'Hey, I'm kinda leaning this way,' what kind of credibility do you have going in? Yet, that's the implication of his campaign.

Mejia said he wants everyone to get a fair hearing and trial.

One of my goals as a judge ... is to improve the quality of the criminal defense bar on both sides, he said. Talk to (the attorneys) after the trial and tell them why I think things are good and bad about how they handled the case.

Smith said as a judge, he will emphasize victims' rights.

One of the big problems I have with the way things are is I don't think anyone is doing enough for the victims, Smith said. I don't think our courts are responsive enough to the victim. I don't think the bar in general is responsive enough to the victims of crime.

I'd like to have a real priority on victims' rights. ... And that's something I'd really like to do as a judge.

Mejia, though, said people often bring up victims' rights as a political sound bite. He notes that no one, including himself, isn't for victims' rights.

He said he does not believe the criminal justice system is broken.

All sides deserve a fair, impartial hearing, Mejia said. And that's what I pledge to do.


a judicial rematch

Judicial candidate Joe Charter didn't march in the Ashland Fourth of July parade this year. Instead, the attorney glided through it on in-line skates, a judicial robe billowing in the wind between bouts of Charter bopping small children on the head with a giant plastic gavel.

I think people want to know a candidate and a judge is a human being and not a stuffed shirt, Charter said. It's so boring to sit in a convertible and do a prom queen wave.

Bill Purdy, who is running against Charter in the Jackson County Circuit Court judge Position 8 race, didn't do the Ashland parade. He was out of town. He did join the Talent Harvest Festival parade, but simply walked holding a sign.

I heard about Joe. Many people didn't think it was very judicial, Purdy said. I don't think that's the way we want to portray our bench. It's a position of dignity ' or at least should be.

And just as their approach to parades differs, so do their campaigns. Purdy, 68, of Medford, has emphasized his experience and ability to work with others, including being partner in prestigious area law firms. Charter, 44, of Ashland, has emphasized his ideas, recent trial experience, and commitment to mediation.

This is the second time the two candidates have met in an election ' the first time was in the primary when both ran for the same vacant spot, which was created by the Legislature to help ease the caseload in Jackson County.

But when Purdy met Charter in the primary, they had a third candidate in the race: 82-year-old Walter Nunley. Nunley ran a write-in campaign after his candidacy was disqualified because he was older than 75, the mandatory retirement age for judges.

In the primary, Purdy got 19,640 votes, Charter 19,249 and there were 809 write-ins. Because of the closeness of the race and the large number of write-in votes, Purdy did not get the 50 percent of the vote required in the primary to win.

Thus, Purdy and Charter were forced to go at it again. This time, though, whoever garners the most votes wins and Nunley is not a factor. Nunley had filed to run against Judge Lorenzo Mejia in the position — race but was again disqualified. Nunley declined to run another write-in campaign.

One thing that is the same though, is the survey of local attorneys' opinions on the race. Since it was exactly the same race, the state bar simply re-released the poll of lawyers taken in the spring when they chose Purdy over Charter, 91 to 44.

Purdy, a graduate of the University of Iowa law school, has practiced law since 1966. Although his early career included some criminal law, most of his practice has dealt with civil cases. He was with Frohnmayer, Deatherage, Foster & Purdy from 1969 to 1979 and was a partner in Foster, Purdy, Allen Peterson & Dahlin from 1980 to 2000. He was Asante's corporate counsel and volunteers for Jackson County Legal Services. He won the state bar Pro Bono Challenge in the emeritus category by providing 375 hours of free legal services in 2001.

Purdy has been active in the community serving on many boards, including being chairman of the American Red Cross, Rogue Valley Chapter, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

He's a past president of the Jackson County Bar Association.

Charter, who got his law degree at the University of California at Berkeley, has been an attorney since 1984 when he was the law clerk for a Superior Court judge in Juneau, Alaska. After working as an attorney in Alaska and California, he joined Grantland, Grensky & Blodgett in Medford. After two years there he joined Werdell, Charter & Hanson. He's been in his own practice since 1997. He's been a mediator since 1997.

Charter ran for Jackson County commissioner in the Democratic primary in 1998, but lost to Cleve Wright. He's served on the Medford School District Budget Committee, the Medford Planning Commission and Medford Charter Review Committee. He currently is on the Ashland Forest Lands Commission. He is the current president of the Jackson County bar.

Charter points out during campaigning that his more recent trial experience than Purdy. Charter's last trial was in September when he represented a local business in a contract dispute in front of Circuit Judge Rebecca Orf.

Purdy can't remember exactly when his last trial was, but the last time Purdy argued a case was before an arbitrator in 1994. Purdy points out that he has acted as an arbitrator ' a paid judge ' as recently as June when he handled a dispute between an auto mechanic and his customer. In the past, he's arbitrated million-dollar construction disputes.

Purdy said he's sat through numerous criminal hearings and a trial to make sure he's up to date.

I didn't see any twists there I couldn't handle, he said.

Purdy said his experience working in long-term partnerships at law firms has taught him teamwork.

I think I have the experience and also the ability to work cooperatively with people, Purdy said. The day I came to Medford in 1969, Stu Foster was in the next office, and we're still together. My name is still on the door.

Purdy said that teamwork is important in the courthouse, just as it is in practice.

Charter hammers on Purdy because of his age ' which only allows the 68-year-old to work one full term before mandatory retirement age sets in. But Purdy said his age is an asset.

From 45 to 65 I learned a lot, Purdy said. I got to know the community better.

And I believe every lawyer who voted in the bar preference poll knew how old I was ... and I got 2-to-1 approval.

Purdy summed up that his experience gives him a better basis to make judgments.

But Charter says his experience as a mediator ' and willingness to try new approaches ' will give him the edge in the courtroom.

I'm an idea person, he said. I'm always looking at ways to innovate and improve efficiency.

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

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