There's something unusual on the otherwise sleepy 2018 ballots: a slew of contested judicial elections.

At least 15 circuit court races will be contested this year. Observers say that's new.

"We just don't have a history of that here," says Edward Jones, who retired in December as Multnomah County's chief criminal judge.

In some states, including Montana, Tennessee and Pennsylvania, judicial races have recently become ideological battlegrounds. Just three Pennsylvania races saw the expenditure of $21 million in campaign funds in 2015.

But in Oregon, arguments over who should sit on court benches are still a novelty. And this year, they come with another twist: Many of the fights are efforts to knock off incumbents.

In May, incumbents on the Oregon Supreme Court (Judge Meagan Flynn) and the Oregon Court of Appeals (Judge Rex Armstrong) face challengers, as do a host of circuit court incumbents.

All Oregon judicial races are nonpartisan, and the challengers appearing this year do not represent any unified ideology. Most judges are appointed, and Oregon hasn't had a Republican governor since 1987, so most of them lean left.

The result is a de facto challenge to Gov. Kate Brown's reshaping of Oregon's courts.

"It might make some sense for Republicans to get together and run for judicial positions, since we may never have a Republican governor again," says Jack Roberts, a former state labor commissioner who once ran for the Oregon Supreme Court.

Kristian Roggendorf, a Lake Oswego lawyer active in the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group, says he's unaware of any such organized action.
But the timing for a backlash is ripe.

Jones, the former Multnomah County judge, notes that he and other baby boomers are at prime retirement age. A wave of judicial retirements has presented Gov. Kate Brown with the opportunity to appoint more than 30 judges since she took office in February 2015.

Several of her recent appointees, including her former general counsel, now Multnomah County Circuit Judge Ben Souede, whom she appointed in July, have drawn opponents.

Portland criminal defense lawyer Bob Callahan is challenging Souede in the May primary.

"The manner of his appointment and his apparent lack of experience in the trial court cause me to run," Callahan says.

Souede says he handled civil and criminal cases for nine years before joining the governor's office. "My track record as a successful litigator and my reputation as a hard-working and respected judge stand on their own," he says.

Other recent Brown picks facing challengers include Judges Ulanda Watkins of Clackamas County and Fay Stetz-Waters of Linn County, both black women.

"The governor's office spends considerable time and resources identifying the most highly qualified applicants for appointment," says Brown's spokesman Chris Pair. "Gov. Brown wants a bench that reflects a diversity of perspectives and experiences as rich as the community it serves."

Both judges face challenges from white males.

Jillian Schoene, co-executive director of Emerge Oregon, which prepares women to run for office, says that's disappointing.

"White men have been well-represented in every office since the founding of this country," Schoene says. "In these races, it's time for them to step aside and let others lead."

Watkins' opponent, Lake Oswego divorce lawyer Stephen Bedor, and Stetz-Waters' challenger, Linn County Deputy District Attorney Michael Wynhausen, didn't return calls seeking comment.

Oregon has seen a couple of big-money contests for judgeships in the past.
Jack Roberts ran against Virginia Linder in the state's first and only million-dollar judicial race for an Oregon Supreme Court position in 2006. (Linder won.) But as he notes, that battle was for an open seat.

Alexander Hamalian, a veteran Portland criminal defense lawyer who is challenging longtime incumbent Multnomah County Circuit Judge Leslie Roberts (no relation to Jack), says nobody recruited him. He says the rise in contested races may reflect broad dissatisfaction and specific unhappiness with Oregon courts.

"I think it is a concern with a lack of real courtroom experience that a lot of the judges currently have," Hamalian says.

Judicial races are different from other electoral contests because candidates cannot personally solicit campaign contributions and are prohibited from speaking about specific legal issues.

"I think the last thing any lawyer really wants to do is run in a contested judicial election," Hamalian says, "but that's the choice we have."