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Oregon’s Top Judge Mandates Vaccinations for All Judges and Court Staff

Chief Justice Martha Walters had “requested” that staff get shots this month. Not enough did.

Oregon’s top judge yesterday upgraded an earlier request to her Oregon Judicial Department subordinates to get vaccinated.

Now, that “request” is a mandate.

In a Sept. 16 memo, Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters told OJD staffers that not enough of them had complied with the plea for compliance she made in late August. As WW reported at the time, that request was less of a directive than the mandate Gov. Kate Brown issued to all state agency employees. (As chief justice, Walters is in charge of OJD. Neither she nor the department’s 2,000 employees report to Brown.)

“I asked, rather than ordered, because I wanted our judicial branch to come together, voluntarily, for the common good,” Walters wrote yesterday. “Impressively, many of our courts and [Office of the State Court Administrator] divisions now have vaccination rates of more than 90%. I applaud your willingness to listen, to engage, and to act. Thank you.”

Compliance with her request, however, was uneven.

“Unfortunately, though, the overall response has not been sufficient to adequately protect our judges, staff, and members of the public from this virus,” Walters continued. “Statewide, about 14% of our judges and staff have not yet received a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. In some courts, less than half of the staff are vaccinated, and some have told us that they will get vaccinated only if mandated to do so.”

Despite the availability of the vaccine and high rates of vaccination in some counties, Walters says, COVID-19 has interrupted some proceedings. “We also have experienced significant disruptions in our court operations—judges and staff have become ill or have had to quarantine due to COVID exposure,” Walters wrote.

In response, Walters issued an order requiring all judges (who are independently elected officials, although few ever have contested races) and OJD staff to get their first shots by Oct. 1. (The order allows for religious and medical exemptions but requires those claiming exemptions to be tested regularly.)

“After much thought and consultation, I have determined that further action is necessary to provide the protection we need and to keep our courts open and safe,” Walters wrote. “I understand that some judges or staff may choose to leave employment with OJD rather than become vaccinated against COVID-19. I hope that that will not happen.”