Gov. Kate Brown Names Her General Counsel to the Oregon Court of Appeals

Misha Isaak is the third Brown staffer appointed to the bench in the past two years.

Gov. Kate Brown speaks to media on Nov. 6, 2018. (Justin Katigbak)

Gov. Kate Brown today appointed her general counsel, Misha Isaak, to a vacant position on the Oregon Court of Appeals.

Isaak, 37, will become the third Brown staffer to move directly from her office to the bench in the past couple of years. His appointment is effective Nov. 1.

In July 2017, Brown appointed Isaak's predecessor, Ben Souede, to the Multnomah County Circuit Court bench and earlier this year, Brown appointed her public safety advisor, Heidi Moawad, to the same court.

Isaak, a graduate of Reed College and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, clerked for two federal judges before joining the Portland office of the Perkins Coie law firm in Portland in 2011. He worked there until joining Brown's office in 2015.

While at Perkins Coie, Isaak argued a landmark case in federal court, Rummell v. Kitzhaber, the 2014 case that legalized same-sex marriage in Portland. Stephen English, a senior Perkins Coie partner, lauded Isaak's abilities.

"Misha was the best associate I ever worked with at Perkins," English said in a statement.

Isaak will replace retiring Justice Erika Hadlock on 13-member Court of Appeals. His salary will be $150,980.

The pending appointment caused some grumbling in the bar because of Isaak's relative youth and what some people see as his limited legal experience—and the fact that as Brown's general counsel, part of his job is to oversee the appointment of judges. (His candidacy for the position was vetted by his deputy, Dustin Buehler, and by a committee of four lawyers and senior judges. There were three other finalists for the position.)

Isaak has recently been a player in the chaos around Senate Bill 1013, which was supposed to narrow the scope of Oregon's death penalty but was drafted in such a confusing manner that Brown has now proposed a special legislative session to rewrite the bill. One of Isaak's tasks is to review all legislation before Brown signs it. In response to a question from WW this week about how much responsibility her office—i.e. Isaak—bore for not catching the mistake, Brown declined to blame him, noting numerous lawyers and lawmakers worked on the bill.

"Look," Brown said Aug. 28. "There were a lot of people involved in this legislation and I think we all share some responsibility."

Most of the people who expressed concerns about Isaak's appointment declined to speak for the record for fear of displeasing Brown or Isaak but Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote summarized his thoughts on the appointment.

"For the long term health of our justice system, judicial appointments have to be removed from the political process," Foote says. "Unfortunately, that is not true right now."

Others applauded Brown's decision. "Misha Isaak has practiced law at the highest levels, on matters of great importance to the State," said David V. Brewer, a senior justice of the Oregon Supreme Court and a member of the panel that recommended Isaak for appointment said in a statement. "His intelligence, work ethic, compassion, and knowledge about state government will enrich the Oregon Court of Appeals."

Current Oregon Supreme Court Justice Chris Garrett, who worked with Isaak at Perkins Coie, praised Isaak's intellect.

"He's universally seen as an extremely bright and talented lawyer," Garrett says.

A former legislator, Garrett says concerns about the appearance of Brown rewarding staffers with judgeships are misplaced. "These are very very qualified high caliber people that she's putting on the bench," Garrett says.

Unlike his former colleagues, Souede and Moawad, Issak is jumping over the circuit court level to the more senior court of appeals.

Two former longtime Multnomah County Court Judges, Edward Jones and Henry Kantor, both say Isaak's lack experience at the trial court level should not be an impediment. They note that while several of the current court of appeals justices  came from circuit courts, a majority did not.

"I'm happy to see somebody who's really smart come from outside," Jones says. "What you realize when you get on the bench is whatever experience you had before as a lawyer is insufficient. Every one of us got on the bench and realized there are a million things we didn't know."

Kantor, who in his current capacity as special counsel to Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, has worked closely with Isaak for the past two years, says Isaak excels at digesting complex legal issues and seeing their practical applications.

"I'm extremely impressed with him," Kantor says. "Oregonians are getting an extraordinary candidate."

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