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January 19th, 2005 Nick Budnick | News Stories
 

Sid Vicious

Judge Sid Galton, the biggest bully on Portland's bench, is now on the other side of the gavel.

     
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Walk into Judge Sid Galton's fourth-floor downtown courtroom and you see the usual: benches, tables, watercolors hanging on wood-paneled walls. Then you notice a blue lava lamp that swirls on his podium.

The judge, it turns out, is even more distinctive than the desk light. Like many Oregon jurists, he's a white male for whom good hair is but a fond memory. But his style is singularly un-judgelike, despite his standard-issue flowing black robes.

"Is it hot in here?" is one of his well-known jokes. "Or is it just me in a dress?"

Galton is the most "out" of Multnomah County's half-dozen gay and lesbian judges-a singer in the Portland Gay Men's Chorus, a member of the state bar's diversity committee and the president of the International Association of Lesbian and Gay Judges.

The 58-year-old Portland native's prominence as a gay judge has helped net him political connections. For example, earlier this month, Mayor Tom Potter and City Commissioner Sam Adams each needed to pick someone to swear them in. Both chose Galton. A little over a year earlier, Police Chief Derrick Foxworth made the same call.

Down at the courthouse, however, it's not his sexual orientation, sense of humor or political clout that people talk about.

Ask a hundred lawyers to name the best judge in the county, and you'll get at least five names. The worst? There are several vying for that spot. But ask those same lawyers who among the 38 local district judges is most vindictive, and no runner-up will come close to Sidney Alan Galton.

"He is so retaliatory," said one lawyer.

"He is a narcissistic hothead," said another.

Of the more than two dozen lawyers interviewed about Galton for this story, only a few would be quoted on the record.

"He's a scary guy," says Bill Schultz, a former colleague of Galton's who recently moved out of state. "I gotta tell you, for every person that's talking to you, there's 10 who would if they weren't afraid of retaliation."

In his seven years on the Multnomah bench, Galton has shown he loves being a judge: the intellectual jousting, the public recognition, the trappings of power-and the power itself.

Now, however, Galton is caught in a struggle to preserve the judicial career he loves so much. He has temporarily stopped hearing cases and finds himself on the other side of the gavel, awaiting a ruling from an obscure state agency empowered to determine whether judges are fit to sit on the bench.

Galton declined to be interviewed for this article. But his battle, which will play out over the next several weeks, provides insight into a man whose conduct, many say, has moved from unconventional to unprofessional-and perhaps worse.

Galton's reputation as an unpredictable bully preceded him to the county bench.

The Cleveland High and Stanford University grad got his start working for his dad's Portland law firm, Galton and Popick, along with his brother, Gary. Friends say he had a falling out with his family in the '80s, after he came out of the closet and divorced his wife, with whom he'd had two kids.

He started his own solo practice in the field of workers' comp, then, in 1982, became an administrative law judge for the state Workers' Compensation Board, settling disputes over benefits between employees and employers.

As a workers'-comp judge, Galton got mixed reviews. Every year, workers'-comp lawyers fill out anonymous surveys rating judges. Those surveys, reviewed by WW, show that Galton got good marks for efficiency and writing ability, but, more frequently than any of his 40 colleagues, he was described as biased and lacking judicial temperament.

Schultz, who argued cases before Galton and then served alongside him for a decade as a workers'-comp judge, says his colleague was notorious for his blow-ups. In fact, he says, Galton was fond of the Pentagon term for nuclear war: "He used to threaten me that if he didn't get his way on certain issues, he would go to 'Def-Con 5.'"

Schultz says he often received phone calls from lawyers, worried that if they challenged Galton in court, he'd unfairly take it out on their clients. "He was always keeping score and currying favor," Schultz says, "but always quick to turn on someone if he felt they crossed him. When he left, it was like a cloud had been lifted."

Judges are supposed to be calm, reasonable, above it all. They are not supposed to be volatile, biased, threatening and overtly power-hungry.

Yet, despite his problems on the workers'-comp bench, Galton wanted to be a "real" judge-one who ruled on legal cases, as opposed to administrative disputes-and for years angled for a judicial appointment from the governor's office.

A relentless schmoozer, gossip and name-dropper, he was active politically in gay groups, a police advisory committee set up by then-Chief Potter and the state bar's governing board.

In 1998, Gov. John Kitzhaber appointed him to fill a vacancy left by the death of Presiding Judge Don Londer.

Lawyer acquaintances claim Galton used to say the governor needed to make a "gay" appointment and also bragged about his friendship to former First Lady Sharon Kitzhaber. If true, that could help explain why Kitzhaber chose him over four judges rated as more qualified in a survey of Oregon lawyers by the state bar.

Chip Lazenby, Kitzhaber's former legal advisor, will not discuss details of Galton's appointment but does praise his quiet role in mentoring and helping young minority lawyers of all stripes. "I think Sid deserves a lot of credit for his relentless efforts to diversify the bar," says Lazenby. "Sid has always been very loud and vocal on the issue-and not just for gays and lesbians."

In his new environs, Galton immediately set out to make a name for himself-literally. He had special pencils made bearing what he told lawyers semi-jokingly was how they should address him: "Judge Perky."

In some ways, the moniker was a good fit. Galton took the courtroom-normally a dry, dreary place packed with tradition and legalese that seems like voodoo to the average Joe-and made it accessible by explaining arcane legalities to jurors, telling anecdotes about his kids and working his own comedy act off the bench. Even his home email address is a double-entendre, starting "Biggavel@."

"He holds court, and he is the court jester, all in one," says one lawyer.

His outgoing style has won him many fans, adding to the riddle that is his personality.

According to Presiding Judge Dale Koch, Galton probably gets more thank-you notes from jurors than any other judge-which Koch knows because Galton forwarded him a stack of about 70.

One juror was so wowed by Galton he later asked the judge to perform his wedding, writing, "I was impressed with your friendly, courteous and personal demeanor."

Another wrote: "You have totally cracked us up with your sense of humor. You need to give lessons to other judges!"

Galton has also earned a reputation for being a good mediator-a role that allows a judge to cast aside procedure, roll up his sleeves and broker deals between two sides in a civil dispute, before it gets to a full-blown trial.

"He is very useful to us in terms of settling cases," says Koch. "Sid's a bright judge who does a very good job with certain types of cases."

His civic involvement also draws praise. "He's a real decent human being and a caring guy," says crime victims' advocate Steve Doell, who often joins Galton at school visits, where they tell kids about the state's mandatory sentencing laws.

From time to time Galton meets with Chief Foxworth for coffee-just as he used to with ex-Chief Potter-to talk about how cops are viewed by sexual minorities and offer advice on how police can improve their courtroom testimony.

Potter says he was pleased when Galton asked to swear him in as mayor, saying, "He's a strong advocate for public safety."

Says lawyer Rick Yugler, "He's got a great heart. He's an emotional guy, which I like."

All that, however, is just one side of Sid Galton.

The best evidence of what many lawyers think of Galton is the number of them who won't appear in front of him. Lawyers are allowed to file affidavits accusing a judge of bias in order to be assigned a different judge.

The county court no longer tracks judicial affidavits, but Presiding Judge Koch confirms that Galton, while probably not among the top two or three, gets more than the average Multnomah judge.

While it's common for individual lawyers to get crosswise with a judge, having an entire firm boycott a specific bench is highly unusual.

Yet two months ago, the state's second-largest law firm, Schwabe, Williamson and Wyatt, which employs about 125 lawyers locally, notified Koch that it would not accept Galton on any of its cases.

The firm's stance is based on a "pattern" of complaints of abusive behavior against female lawyers, including some who work for Schwabe, says partner Bill Crow. As far as anyone at the firm can remember, Schwabe has only done this once before, says Crow, a former president of the Oregon State Bar. "It's not an easy decision to make," he said, "and one we don't exercise with any other judge."

There's no single case that has turned so many Portland lawyers against Galton. Rather, a pattern of petty feuds and inappropriate behavior sketches a personality geared toward retribution, not justice.

In 1998, lawyer Greg Kafoury was engaged in a civil lawsuit trying to punish a gravel company, Parker Northwest Paving, for suing his clients-a group of environmentalists who had criticized the firm's record on a radio show. The judge in that case was Anna Brown, who was then on the short list to be named federal judge. Brown repeatedly urged Kafoury's side to go to mediation in order to settle, with no success. Galton, a friend of Brown's, sat in the back of the courtroom through several hearings.

Kafoury told the judge there would be no settlement, but during the proceedings, at an after-hours lawyers' party, Galton approached Kafoury and strongly suggested the lawyer bring him the case for mediation. Kafoury again said no dice.

When the trial ended with a smaller-than-desired payout for his client, Kafoury's legal team sent letters complaining about Brown and opposing her confirmation to the federal bench-a move that irked several judges who supported Brown, says retired Presiding Judge James Ellis. (Brown was eventually confirmed, in October 1999.)

A few weeks later, Kafoury appeared for the first time in front of Galton.

Kafoury and the opposing attorney were calmly slogging through a routine personal-injury case like "cattle grazing," Kafoury says, when he suddenly found himself slapped with a $100 fine for interrupting the other lawyer. Kafoury calls it "petty payback" and now refuses to appear before the judge.

That same year, public defender Joel Greenberg appeared before Galton representing a client who had failed to register with the state as a sex offender in a timely fashion. The late filing constituted a probation violation, but Greenberg felt his client, who had suffered a stroke and sustained brain damage, had a good excuse. Galton, however, called the man a liar and slapped him with a harsher-than-average punishment.

The judge's behavior seemed "abusive and abrasive, I thought unnecessarily so," Greenberg says. The lawyer went into the judge's chambers afterward and expressed his strong disappointment. Though the criticism was delivered in private, Galton blew up. He called Greenberg's boss at Metropolitan Public Defender and demanded he be fired.

Law firms don't like to get on the wrong side of a sitting judge. So MPD hired an outside lawyer to conduct an independent investigation. The conclusion: Greenberg had not committed a firing offense.

Galton was on solid ground bringing a dispute to a superior's attention, says retired judge Ellis, but demanding someone be fired pushed the envelope.

"I wouldn't feel comfortable with that," Ellis says. "That's not my job."

In 2000, longtime civil-rights and family practitioner Mark Kramer represented a woman trying to terminate an ex-boyfriend's rights to visit their child. During the proceedings, Kramer told judge Galton that his client would allow visitation on the next weekend, but the woman later changed her mind. Galton accused Kramer of lying.

"The judge was upset at my client and took it out on me," says Kramer.

Kramer asked for Galton to be removed from the case. Galton responded by filing a bar complaint accusing Kramer, among other things, of failing to notify the opposing lawyer of his bid to change judges.

The technical violation caused Galton no harm, says Kramer, "but it was another way to stick it to me."

Two years after Galton battled Kramer, a rookie civil-rights lawyer, Beth Creighton, also felt Galton's wrath.

Creighton's firm had filed a false-imprisonment suit against the state alleging that in an earlier criminal case Galton illegally had jailed someone for a parole violation even though the man was no longer on parole.

Although he wasn't a defendant in the suit, Galton attended every court hearing, sitting next to the state lawyers defending the case.

At one such hearing, Galton approached Creighton with at least four people in earshot and, in a threatening tone, warned her of "consequences" if her firm didn't drop the lawsuit. Creighton and Judge Edward Jones, who oversaw the hearing, declined to comment, but in a subsequent deposition, Galton admitted to his statement. His reasoning: All frivolous lawsuits "have consequences."

Despite such controversies, Galton has never been challenged in an election. In 1998, about six months after he was appointed, he ran unopposed, and the same thing happened in 2002.

This is not unusual for judges. Because they are little-known and nonpartisan, incumbency gives them a huge advantage, and unlike in any other type of race, incumbents get the word "incumbent" next to their name right on the ballot. Lawyers in Portland can remember only three instances where a sitting judge was ever challenged and unseated; most of those were prompted by a widespread perception of flagrant misbehavior or incompetence.

Schultz says the normal reluctance to challenge a sitting judge is probably heightened in Galton's case-for fear of what happens if you lose. "I have no doubt that a lot of people would have been afraid to," says Schultz, adding that in his professional career, Galton is "the most vengeful person I have ever seen."

In other words, the quality of Galton's that is least befitting a judge, his penchant for payback, is also the one that helps him keep his job.

Now, however, for the first time, Galton is on the defensive. The trouble stems from the case of Christopher Mengis, a gang associate on trial for allegedly kicking and threatening his own mother.

Near the end of the case, Galton urged rookie prosecutor Ellen Osoinach to issue jury instructions even though a defense attorney was not present-generally considered a no-no in the fairness department.

According to the findings of a subsequent investigation, Osoinach expressed concerns that moving forward without the defense lawyer would be improper and make the case vulnerable to a type of appeal called "post-conviction relief."

Galton reportedly said he did not "give a shit" about her concerns and said, "Fuck post-conviction relief." Continuing the conversation, which took place while the jury was not present, he threatened to bar her from his courtroom if she did not play ball.

Based on these goings-on, Mengis filed a complaint with the Commission on Judicial Fitness and Disability in September 2003.

Overseen by a nine-member commission, the state agency employs one part-time executive director and uses lawyers who volunteer as investigators and prosecutors. The Judicial Fitness Commission, as it is commonly known, receives roughly 120 complaints about Oregon judges annually and typically finds about a half-dozen worth pursuing.

The commission investigated Mengis' allegations and issued its own formal complaint against Galton in May 2004, faulting him for being "irate" and "verbally abusive."

Galton had initially denied the allegations. Last October, however, he signed his name to a consent agreement admitting to swearing at Osoinach and bullying her. He agreed to censure by the state Supreme Court-essentially a public reprimand-and agreed to enter counseling and anger-management classes.

The rebuke could have gone away quietly. Instead, however, Galton threw what one lawyer calls a "Hail Mary pass."

In November 2003, in a little-noticed decision, the Oregon Supreme Court had ruled that because of conflicting language in state law, the Judicial Fitness Commission had no authority over municipal judges-the lowest rung of judges used by counties outside Multnomah to handle low-level cases.

Learning of the case late last year, Galton and his lawyer, Jim Gidley, argued that the conflicting language applied to circuit-court judges as well, and Galton unilaterally withdrew from the consent agreement he'd signed with the Judicial Fitness Commission-once again denying any inappropriate behavior.

In a ruling filed Dec. 30, the Supreme Court blocked his escape route, saying he'd taken a sentence of the Oregon Constitution "out of context."

Galton has been on a personal leave as the Judicial Fitness Commission process gears up again. If he does not reach another consent agreement, he could face a public hearing Feb. 16 and 17, allowing further evidence to be submitted concerning his fitness as a judge. The commission has the authority to suspend a judge or remove him from the bench, something it's done only twice before.

In the briefs to the Supreme Court submitted by his attorney, Jim Gidley, Galton says the

commission is just what his critics accuse him of being: an unfair bully.

The briefs at times accuse the state commission of being "prejudiced," "fundamentally unfair" and a "star chamber." The consequences of the commission's probe "may be professionally immense," wrote Gidley, and "the fiscal, physical and especially the emotional toll on Judge Galton over more than a year has been significant."

Galton, in short, finds himself in a profoundly uncomfortable position: that of being judged. And for his critics, the payback is long overdue. Says Schultz, "I think it's a blot on all of us that this has gone on so long."

Research assistance for this article was provided by Pete Hunt.


Judge Sid Galton likes to call lawyers he knows by nicknames. For instance, he calls deputy prosecutors who work for District Attorney Mike Schrunk "little Mikes."

On the workers'-comp bench, Galton was very vocal on the topic of judicial ethics.

A dispute between Galton and his ex-wife, Cynthia, made it to the Supreme Court in 1988. She argued that he should have to increase his child support, sell the family house and split the proceeds. Galton won that round but lost in a subsequent suit she filed under an alternative legal theory. He had to sell the house.

During his seven years on the bench, Galton has filed Oregon State Bar complaints against six lawyers. In four cases, they were deemed unfounded.

Bill Crow, whose firm now refuses to appear before Galton, says he has had only good experiences with the judge and was surprised to learn of the complaints.

Galton has barred at least four attorneys from his courtroom, including Greg Kafoury and three public defenders. This is believed to be more lawyers than any other judge.

The three public defenders Galton has barred from his courtroom work for the nonprofit Multnomah Defenders, Inc. Citing his dispute with them, he has told people he is lobbying other judges to blast the nonprofit in a pending survey hoping to get them disbanded.

Former Presiding Judge James Ellis says lawyers sometimes file affidavits accusing a judge of bias in order to judge-shop or lay the groundwork for an electoral challenge. Upon taking over as chief judge, he halted the practice of tracking such affidavits by judge.

 
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