Multnomah County's corps of judges is much less racially diverse than the county's population, or the defendants who pass through its courtrooms.
The county's head count is 5.7 percent African-American, 5.7 percent Asian and 7.5 percent Hispanic or Latino, adding up to about one of every five residents being a minority.
Yet the county's 39-judge court includes just one African-American justice—the only one in the state—for about 2.5 percent of the bench population. There is one Asian judge, and there are no Hispanics.
Gov. Ted Kulongoski appointed white men to fill two recent vacancies, and now faces a third opening, with the recent retirement of Judge Sid Galton. Kulongoski spokeswoman Mary Ellen Glynn says the governor expects to fill the vacancy in early 2006 and is "very cognizant'' about the need for the bench to look like its community.
The racial disparity is even starker in comparison with the percentage of minority defendants. So far this year, 23.8 percent of criminal defendants have been African-American; 11.6 percent have been Hispanic.
Defense lawyer Angel Lopez, whose office represents most Spanish-speaking defendants in the county, remembers a far more diverse court in the 1990s. Then, the court included three African Americans—Aaron Brown, Mercedes Deiz and Ancer Haggerty—and a Latino, Joseph Ceniceros.
Lopez says the potential miscommunications fed by failed and flubbed intercultural translations are as much a problem as the symbolic impact of a court with few minority representatives. "It can't help but send a message.... 'We relate to you, but we're not like you,'" says Lopez, a former president of the Oregon State Bar.
White judges echo Lopez's sentiments.
"The most obvious way it has an impact is that if minorities continue to be prosecuted by a criminal-justice system in which they're not represented, it's got to be a substantial hit to the legitimacy of the process, because legitimacy is a matter of perception," says Judge Michael Marcus.
Rather than decrying a lack of multicultural sensitivity, local lawyers and judges tend to blame the court's whiteness on low salaries for Oregon judges, meaning sought-after minorities stay in more lucrative private practice. Circuit-court judges in Oregon counties earn $95,800 a year, the fifth-lowest rate in the country.
"When people talk about efforts to diversify the bench they have to step back a little and see what the competition is," says Henry "Chip" Lazenby, an African-American lawyer who advised former Gov. John Kitzhaber on judicial appointments.