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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Calibrating our moral compass on Judge Greif

According to H. R. “Bob” Haldeman, Richard Nixon’s chief of staff who went to jail for his part in Watergate, revered evangelist Billy Graham was “absolutely crushed” when tapes revealed that Nixon habitually cursed like a sailor. In a reminiscence recorded for the Nixon Presidential Library in 1987, Haldeman recalled Graham’s saying to him, after the tapes were released, “‘Bob, I can’t believe what I’ve read in the tapes because in all the hours I spent with Richard Nixon, and there were many, many hours, he never said ‘damn,’ let alone all those things. I can’t believe it.’ ”

By contrast, Graham wasn’t upset by Nixon’s pursuit of the war in Vietnam. Indeed, in a memo to Nixon dated April 15, 1969, but only made public in 1989, Graham said that if the peace talks in Paris were to fail, Nixon should step up the war and bomb the dikes, which would have caused up to one million deaths. Nor did Graham appear disturbed by Nixon’s extensive efforts to subvert the integrity of the 1972 election, which is what Watergate was all about.

This confusion between venial and mortal sins, of mistaking the moral capillary for the jugular, isn’t exclusively a failure of certain churched people. There’s a possibility that it will happen in the case of Jackson County Circuit Judge Lisa Greif, who is up for reelection on April 19 and who deserves to be voted out. The lesser reason is that her challenger, Joe Charter, long-time county Justice of the Peace, is a better choice. The greater reason is the Oregon Judicial Review Commission should have removed Greif from the bench — and may, in its own good time, still do so if she wins.

The sensational aspect of the scandal that engulfed Greif last year when certain of her emails came to light in connection with litigation against OnTrack in 2017 was their profanity and her violently hostile remarks about her then-fellow judge Patricia Crain. Greif apologized publicly, hoping that voters would forgive what she would like us to regard as intemperate speech. But as the Mail Tribune editorial board pointed out in an incisive piece on Nov. 1, 2019, “The problem is, the language is the least of it.”

Greif’s emails were sent to Amy Jacobs, one of several plaintiffs in a suit against OnTrack. They reveal that Greif coached Jacobs on legal strategy and on how to try the case in the media rather than in the courtroom. The media campaign was quite successful. To this day, few of us realize that pre-trial depositions discovered that there wasn’t much substance to the plaintiffs’ charges of abuse in the workplace, and that they settled for quite small sums.

The critical distinction here is between the dignity of the bench and the integrity of the judicial process. In this context, dignity is a matter of public appearance, but integrity is a matter of public trust. The Mail Tribune aptly quoted from Rule 2 of the Oregon Code of Judicial Conduct: “A judge shall observe high standards of conduct so that the integrity, impartiality and independence of the judiciary and access to justice are preserved and shall act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the judiciary and the judicial system.” No one seeking justice cares if a judge uses the “f” word in private emails. We all care if a judge is clandestinely working for one party to our suit.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Ashland Tidings every Saturday.