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Community Builders: Courts, justice and collaboration

Editor’s Note: Community Builder is a periodic Q & A series providing perspectives from local people who have been involved in significant change in Southern Oregon. Today’s conversation is with Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Lorenzo Mejia and his wife, Cristina Sanz, Southern Oregon University Foundation director of development.

Q: Lorenzo, how did you arrive in Oregon?

Lorenzo: I was born in Chihuahua, Mexico. My father came to the United States for a job with the Southern Pacific Railroad. We lived in Reedsport. He would be gone during the whole week and come home during the weekends. Before he died, my parents had four more kids, so there were eight of us. He died in his early 30s because of an infection that was not treated in his youth. That left my mom with eight kids and no English. She couldn’t drive, so it was a very big deal.

We moved from Reedsport to North Bend just because there was a little more of a Latino community. That’s basically where I grew up. It was a pretty good childhood. It was a poverty life, but we didn’t know what we never had, so it was fine. My mom worked very hard. Basically, we lived on Social Security and her working in the fish and shrimp plants in Winchester Bay and Charleston. I graduated from North Bend High School and went to the University of Oregon.

Q: Cristina, what is your background?

Cristina: I was born in the Philippines in a suburb of Manila. My family is still there. My parents were alarmed when the Marcos regime came into power. They felt that their children should not be in a non-democratic country. My brother and I went to live with extended family in L.A. I went through high school in the U.S., graduated from UCLA, and eventually worked. Then I ended up in law school at the U of O, so that’s what brought me to Oregon.

Q: Lorenzo, tell me about the difficult part of your life?

Lorenzo: I started drinking at about 18 and it got pretty serious. Basically, I went to four years of college, but I only had about three years of credits. I started working for the mill back in North Bend. I did that for about 2 years and then I transferred to Weyerhaeuser in Eugene. Part-time, I picked up the credits I needed to graduate.

The drinking had become pretty serious. In 1976 I picked up two DUIIs and then I picked up another one in ’77. Compared to what happens now; I didn’t suffer really severe consequences. My license was suspended for a year and I did five days in the Lane County Jail, but I did it during my vacation at work. It took me a while to get out of college because I didn’t stop drinking. Finally, in 1980, right around Christmas, I stopped drinking. I went to Serenity Lane. I haven’t drunk alcohol since then.

Q: Did that experience impact your choice to get into law?

Lorenzo: Not really. I’d always wanted to be an attorney. I think I wrote my “What Do You Want To Be” paper in the eighth grade on “I want to be an attorney,” but mostly I was thinking about being the district attorney and cleaning up the streets.

Q: How did you two meet?

Lorenzo: In law school. I was 2 years ahead of her. When she was in her first year she was rather political. That’s the primary reason I knew her.

Cristina: After my second year at law school, I had a summer clerkship at the Oregon Supreme Court in Salem when we started dating.

Lorenzo: I worked for ODOT in Salem at that time. Then I got a public defender’s job here in Jackson County. I moved here in June of ’88. I was hired by Bob Warren and Bert Putney; they took a chance on me.

Cristina: I became a legal-aid attorney in Eugene. We were both working, seeing each other on the weekends.

Lorenzo: We got married in September 1991, and Cristina moved to Southern Oregon. Basically, I stayed with the public defender’s office for 13 years. I liked the job. I loved the job actually, but, yeah, it gets to you. There’s a lot of pressure in having somebody else’s future in your hands. Then Measure 11 came in and you’re really dealing with serious time.

Q: And then you were appointed a judge?

Lorenzo: I was appointed Circuit Court judge in April of 2002. My first week on the bench I was a little nervous, but by the end of the first week I felt really comfortable. I thought, “This is my job, this is where I belong.” Now, I’m the chief criminal judge in Jackson County, which means I have been doing it the longest. It’s a great job.

Q: How have things changed in the criminal justice system?

Lorenzo: Things have changed over the years. When I showed up the drug of choice was cocaine, then it changed to meth, which is still the bigger problem. Although I do see people charged with illegal possession of various opioids, I mostly see people charged with illegal possession of heroin. They usually start using heroin because it is readily available and cheaper. We have an incredible rise in crime rate compared to other counties. We have more criminal cases in Jackson than Lane County.

Q: How could the criminal justice system be improved?

Lorenzo: The criminal justice system would be a lot better if we could just slow people down. If we could hold them in the jail and get them into treatment, we’d have a chance to change their behavior. We cannot sanction them for missing court dates, it’s just ridiculous. “Nothing’s going to happen to me if I don’t show up,” so they don’t show up. The jail capacity is a big issue, not being able to hold them. I think that’s the biggest problem in the criminal justice system.

There have been a lot of improvements. Law enforcement has become much more professional. I’m impressed with that. When Chief (Eric) Mellgren was the chief of police of Medford, he started big changes. Medford is one of the most professional police organizations.

Q: Cristina, you’ve been the director of Oregon Community Foundation in Southern Oregon and now you have a new position as development director of SOU. What does a development director job entail?

Cristina: We’re fundraisers and supporters of the university. We help build SOU’s financial support for students, faculty and academic programs. We appreciate our donors and make sure their gifts are going for their intended purpose. Because I worked in the legal field, I know different attorneys’ work preferences and can help guide their clients with their gift and also keep the attorney in the loop when appropriate. Donors want to give; we assist in a thoughtful way.

Q: You have a perspective on racial issues in Southern Oregon.

Lorenzo: I once came to Medford in the ‘70s and I felt it was very hostile. I know there were a lot of Hispanics here, but it just seemed very hostile. When I came here for work, there was a deputy who when he said the word Mexican it just sounded like a curse word, and that’s the way he meant it to sound. However, with time, there have been improvements in our criminal justice system. Yes, I am aware of the events and mood of the last three years. I am so proud of the fact that when people express their racial animus or xenophobia, members our circuit court and law enforcement leaders try to deal with this head on to make sure all members of our community are treated fairly.

Q: If you could wave a magic wand and bring about some change in the region, what would it be?

Lorenzo: The mental health issues are really big. We’re really seeing it in the courts. We have a lot of people, for minor crimes, clogging up the state hospital because that is the only way they are going to get mental health treatment. The standard for actually committing somebody is “dangerous to self or others.” It’s a very hard standard. I really do understand that taking someone’s freedom and committing them to basically involuntary treatment for at least six months is a huge thing. It is a big thing, but I really do think that we have to have some other standard to be able to at least slow people down and get them into treatment. That relates to the mental health laws and also the jail capacity issue.

I also get a sense that we are also seeing a bigger separation between the haves and have-nots. That’s an issue for me. I just see so many people who have to struggle so much.

Cristina: Student debt is also a huge issue. I meet incredibly talented students at SOU, some of modest means, some at the poverty level, but they are all concerned. Not having our state support higher education is a big mistake. SOU is a big economic boost for Southern Oregon. Student debt is a worry.

Q: Both of you have had extensive interactions with colleagues at the state level. How is Southern Oregon unique and how is it similar to the rest of the state?

Lorenzo: Well, as far as the legal community, we have a very good reputation for our treatment courts. We’re leaders in the treatment, and also in handling cases. I think we have a pretty good reputation as a legal community and also as a bar. It’s a pretty amicable bar. For three three years in a row we’ve been winning the Campaign for Equal Justice competition, so our attorneys care too. We have nine judges here. Lane County has 15 judges, but we are handling many more criminal cases. We handle more cases per judge than any other county in Oregon.

Cristina: I think we are leaders in collaboration. The presidents of Southern Oregon University, Klamath Community College, Rogue Community College and Oregon Tech have formed a consortium to see how they can make it easier for students in our region to coordinate programs. It’s unique, and it’s really going to pay off for our community. That collaboration and collegiality is really important in leadership.

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Bio: Lorenzo Mejia and Cristina Sanz

Lorenzo Mejia graduated from the University of Oregon in 1981 and from its law school in 1985. Prior to law school he worked at wood mills in North Bend and Springfield. In 1988, he joined the Jackson County Public Defender’s office until he was appointed to the bench in 2002. He has served as the court’s presiding judge and is now the chief criminal judge. He is active with the Inn of Courts and Southern Oregon Goodwill.

Cristina Sanz graduated from UCLA in 1983 and from the University of Oregon law school in 1988. Her first job after college was with a domestic violence shelter. That experience led her to work at Legal Services in Eugene. She started her own law practice in Medford in 1992, focusing on family and juvenile cases. In 2000, she became a court mediator, then worked for Oregon Community Foundation for 12 years. Cristina recently joined Southern Oregon University Foundation as a director of development. She is involved with the Women’s Leadership Conference, Southern Oregon Estate Planning Council, University Club and her local PEO chapter.

Cristina and Lorenzo have a daughter, Carmen, making her own way in the world. They reside in Medford and enjoy a quiet home life.

Steve Boyarsky is a retired educator and longtime resident of the Rogue Valley. He continues to be involved in educational and youth programs.

Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Lorenzo Mejia and Southern Oregon University Development Director Cristina Sanz outside the courthouse in Medford. Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune