Robes In the Ring

A candidate for Supreme Court says his opponent is inflating her credentials.

Quick: Name a sitting Oregon Supreme Court judge.

OK, we admit it—maybe it's not a fair question. Most Americans can't name any of the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices. So while we know WW readers are smarter than most (it's election season—we're pandering), coming up with the name of even one member of Oregon's top court might be tough. 

The fact is, the seven-member court rules on the weightiest matters facing the state: death-penalty cases, environmental issues, public-employee benefits and the fairness of sentences meted out by lower courts. And it's known as one of the most efficient and effective state supreme courts in the country.

While the court's judges can have a big impact on Oregonians' lives, voters (and yes, the justices are elected) often have to rely on résumés and endorsements for guidance. The choice is made more difficult because the people who wear robes don't state their opinions on matters that may come before the court—a setup that lends itself to dry and, well, judicious campaigning. 

But this year, there's a bit more spark.

In the Nov. 6 election, Oregon voters will choose between Portland attorney Nena Cook and Multnomah County Circuit Judge Richard Baldwin to fill the open seat vacated by retiring Justice Robert "Skip" Durham.

Baldwin is taking the unusual step in a judicial race of questioning whether Cook has been telling the truth about her legal experience in speeches and the Voters' Pamphlet.

“I don’t think she’s highly qualified,” Baldwin tells WW. “I think she’s exaggerated her credentials.” 

Cook denies any résumé inflation, and says she has pledged not to engage in exchanging charges and allegations.

"I have no idea where he could possibly make that statement with any credibility," Cook says.

Baldwin, 65, has racked up endorsements from mostly Democratic politicians, including former Govs. Barbara Roberts and Ted Kulongoski (himself a former Supreme Court justice). Baldwin, a judge for the past 11 years, recently won the Oregon State Bar's preference poll and gained the support of all 12 of the current and former state Court of Appeals judges who have endorsed in this race.

Cook, 46, has support from leading Republicans, including former Gov. Vic Atiyeh and Dave Frohnmayer, a former state attorney general and president of the University of Oregon. Twenty-six of the state's 36 district attorneys have given her the nod. 

Working in private practice most of her career, Cook served as president of the state bar in 2005 and was picked by WW in the same year as one of Portland's 50 most influential women.

Cook has served as a pro tem judge in Multnomah County since 2007, a volunteer position to fill in when other judges are absent.  

Cook has said in speeches (as well as told WW) that as a pro tem judge she has "heard and decided hundreds of cases and gained valuable judicial experience."

But Multnomah County court records obtained by WW show she's written motions for summary judgment or dismissal on just 37 cases from 2008 to present.

Cook stands by her statement, saying the court records don't take into account cases where she provided preliminary rulings before other judges took over.

Baldwin, a full-time judge for more than a decade, doubts her claim. He says he's heard about 350 trials in his career. He says his stint as a pro tem judge 20 years ago gave him a "glimpse" of what being a judge was like.

“That’s step one, square A of becoming a full-time judge,” Baldwin says. 

Baldwin's campaign points to another claim of Cook's that she makes in the Voters' Pamphlet: that her work experience includes the Marion County District Attorney's Office from 1990 to 1991.

What Cook doesn't say is that she was a law student at the time. 

In a video of a Washington County Public Affairs Forum held in May and posted online, Cook did note she was a student during those years. But she claimed she "tried hundreds of jury trials and dealt with some weighty constitutional issues."

Linda Love, a lawyer at Portland's Williams Love O'Leary & Powers who's endorsed Baldwin, says there's no way a law student would try hundreds of jury trials in less than a year, and it's unlikely any of them would have constitutional importance. "That's just impossible on its face," Love says.

"When I said I dealt with hundreds of cases, I dealt with them," Cook responds. The misdemeanor cases, she added, "absolutely deal with weighty constitutional issues—people's rights, people's liberties and people's freedoms."

Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis, who has endorsed Cook, says prosecuting criminal cases as a law student "can mean quite a bit." He says he has had third-year clerks in his office help try Measure 11 felony cases.

To Marquis, that Cook has any criminal experience (which he notes Baldwin lacks) shows she has an interest in cases that matter to him and other DAs. He added he has no doubts about her experience level.

"It's a bit of a sign of desperation," Marquis says of Baldwin's comments. "Until I've heard this, I've never heard anybody say Nena Cook is a fraud, she isn't what she said she is. At least she brings a different perspective, of not just being one of the usual suspects—prominent middle-aged white guys from a particular ZIP code in Portland.” 

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