05-25-2020  7:10 pm   •   PDX and SEA Weather
Candiates for Multnomah County Circuit Court judge this election include: (top, L to R) Adrian Brown, Ernest Warren Jr. (bottom, L to R) Rima Ghandour, Sonia Montalbano
Saundra Sorenson
Published: 09 April 2020

Portland voters have the rare opportunity to choose a new Multnomah County Circuit Court judge this election cycle. 

While the position is usually held by a governor appointee who then runs for re-election, outgoing Judge Gregory F. Silver announced he would vacate his seat before his term ends. There are now five candidates campaigning for an open seat where incumbents often run unopposed.

The Skanner spoke with each candidate for Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge about their respective experience and approach to the courtroom. Interviews are edited for length and clarity.  

 

Adrian Brown 

Adrian Brown has served as an assistant U.S. Attorney for the past 13 years, acting as Civil Rights Coordinator for the District of Oregon. Prior to that, she was a lawyer in the U.S. Air Force’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps, where she worked as trial counsel in the Air Force Judiciary and acted as a legal assistance officer to air force members.

 

Why did you feel called to run?

In 2017 I felt a strong desire to be more involved in my local community. I had been doing civil rights enforcement for the past 10 years, and I had worked on police reform issues, I worked a lot with the Albina Ministerial Alliance, and also on disability access with Disability Rights Oregon and the Mental Health Association of Oregon. I had really found a lot of pleasure in being a vital part of my local community. And the judiciary as the third branch of government has an opportunity to be in a leadership position.  

 

What do you see as the greatest challenge in transitioning from attorney to judge?

As an attorney you are an advocate for your client. As a judge, you are there to serve the entire system.

I am very fortunate to be ready to start my work with the court as a neutral from day one, because I have served all sides of the bar, and I have had the privilege of being a prosecutor as well as a defense attorney. So I have both experienced what it’s like to cross-examine a child victim of sexual abuse, and I’ve also had the privilege and honor to help prepare a child as a prosecutor, prepare her for her testimony against her own father who had sexually abused her. 

I have served on both sides of the civil bar as well, so I also know what it is like when you have someone who is relying on you to help them get through an extremely difficult situation. Even when it doesn’t involve a prison sentence, it may involve a sentence personally for them to experience for the rest of their lives.  

 

What are the barriers marginalized communities face in the judicial system? 

One of the biggest obstacles is the access to legal aid. The amount of individuals that are underserved in this community that need Legal Aid attorneys because they can’t afford an attorney is huge. And there are not enough attorneys.

The very first civil rights case I had came to me from a Legal Aid attorney. A woman in St. Helens was not able to get a (disability) accommodation from her landlord to be able to keep her in her home. It was the work of a Legal Aid attorney that enabled her to not only file a HUD complaint, but to persist in that process. 

Going through a legal process is extremely challenging. One of the things they’re doing with the new court house is providing better services to people who are self-represented. It’s going back to education, making sure they know what their rights are, and making sure people know how to access services to be able to advocate for themselves. 

 

Ernest Warren Jr. 

Ernest Warren Jr. has been a criminal defense lawyer for 30 years, and is managing partner at Warren & Sugarman law firm. 

 

Why did you feel called to run?

I was born and raised in North/Northeast Portland and uniquely have represented people and traditional businesses in our community. I have also represented our community’s indigent people accused of the most serious criminal matters for over 31 years. I represent my community because the community has historically been underrepresented in legal matters.

 

What do you see as the greatest challenge in transitioning from attorney to judge? 

To understand the transition from attorney to judge you have to understand what a judge does: In Multnomah County, 95% of a judge’s time is spent on criminal matters. For 31 years I have handled the most serious criminal matters in Multnomah County Courts. Also I have managed a firm that has provided indigent defender services for 30 years. Therefore I am uniquely qualified to take the bench from day one and have all the skills necessary to administer justice. 

In my mind, a judge is supposed to hold the scales of justice in his hands, and my American symbol of justice is also blindfolded, so he doesn’t consider color, race, or national origin, and based on the evidence, he administers justice and always does what’s right. In my experience in the past that has not been what’s happened. I’ve always chosen to do jury trials because I have a fear that judges can’t always do what’s right. So I’ve had hundreds of trials, and 95% of them are going to be jury trials because I trust the people more than I trust the judge. Whenever there’s a little injustice going on, I’m willing to have a little talk with the judge and try to reason it out. As a judge I think I would be open to allow the attorneys, the advocates, to reason with me. I think I can listen empathetically to what they have to say, and come to the right decision.  

 

What have you observed are the greatest obstacles to civil rights enforcement in the county? 

All you have to do is look at the arrest, prosecution and incarceration rates for ethnic minorities in Multnomah County and the problem is very clear. In fact almost 10% of the adult African American population in Multnomah County is detained or jailed. Having participated in gang mentorship with the pastors of 1145 it is clear to me that young folks need role models that are from their community. I think that Multnomah County voters electing me will demonstrate a commitment to diversity and diversity is the single way to enforce and believe in civil rights. You can’t say you believe in civil rights then turn your back to the racial disparities that stare us in the face in Multnomah County. 

 

Rima Ghandour  

Rima Ghandour is a civil attorney specializing in personal injury, construction defect, business litigation, products liability, and insurance coverage at her Ghandour Law practice. Prior to that she served as an attorney at Safeco and then Liberty Mutual Insurance, then as partner at Wiles Law Group. 

 

Why did you feel called to run? 

I’m an immigrant. I came to the US when I was 18. I’m Arab, I’m Muslim. There’s always been issues surrounding who I am and my identity, but the last few years, especially after the Muslim ban, there was so much fear out there in Brown, Black, LGBTQ, Muslim communities. And part of the fear was they would not be given a fair shake in the judicial system. I was fearing that, too. 

After living with that for a few months, I realized I needed to do something with the privilege that I had, and hopefully be a representative on the court, so people will know someone would be out there upholding their rights and protections. I’m running because there is so much fear out there that (vulnerable communities) are not going to get procedural justice.

And as a judge, you have a different podium to speak from, a different level of change you can make within the system. So you can be an advocate for diversity and equity and inclusion, but in a different way. 

 

What do you see as the greatest challenge in transitioning from attorney to judge? 

Probably moving from being an advocate to being somebody who’s adjudicating cases. Doing that sort of switch around, where you’re not the one fighting, not the one arguing. On the other hand, you have a different podium to speak from, a different level of change you can make within the system, so you can be an advocate for diversity and equity and inclusion, but in a different way. 

What I like about what I do and what I practice is that I can have the same exact case and be on the defense one day, and be on the prosecution side the other day. I have the ability to look at cases from both sides and all sides, and understand where everybody is coming from. That will be helpful on the bench.  

 

How do you think courts can better operate during quarantine? 

I noticed the first initial orders were not translated from English. In the first few days, people were so confused about what was going on in the courts. So I just started doing three-minute PSA videos in Arabic, and extended them to Spanish and Mandarin translations, explaining the orders. 

A big part of justice is that everybody has the same information. One thing I hope to see more of, and encourage more of, is doing more than just putting an order on a website. Make sure you reach out to people in this community and that community.  

 

Sonia Montalbano 

Sonia Montalbano is a civil lawyer focusing on employment and business law at the McKeanSmith firm. Her previous experience includes private practice and working at Elliott, Ostrander & Preston for 13 years. She has practiced law for 23 years.

 

Why did you feel called to run? 

I work with and know a lot of the judges who are already on the bench, and I became a lawyer because I wanted to help people. I’ve always felt the role of an attorney is, I will walk with you down this road and I will hopefully give you enough information and explain the process that you will never see me again. All of the judges I encountered demonstrated to me you might be able to have a greater and more impactful voice because of your position as a judge. 

 

What do you see as the greatest challenge in transitioning from attorney to judge? 

I think if I see people in front of me who need assistance, I am going to be more limited in the assistance that I can give them on a case-by-case basis. I’ve talked to a number of judges about what the biggest challenges they thought were when they made that transition. One judge said what was painful to him was if he saw a lawyer failing to make an argument that he knew would help that lawyer’s client. He can’t say, “Well, are you talking about the state constitution or the federal constitution?” for example. I think that will be really challenging for me. But that might be counterbalanced by the things I think I can accomplish by having a role on the bench.

 

How do you think your experience practicing employment law would translate to the position of county circuit court judge? 

While I focus on employment and business law, over the 23 years I’ve been practicing, I’ve done everything from criminal law, civil law, personal injury, domestic relations, contracts, complex business disputes, First Amendment, and I’ve done it in state courts, federal courts, and importantly, at the Court of Appeals level. 

The most important thing for me when I go into a courtroom with a client is they feel that they're treated with respect, that they are heard, and that they understand why the outcome is what it is. I’m also an arbitrator in the state mandatory arbitration program, for Multnomah County. Every time I issue an opinion I write a letter, and I write it as plainspokenly as I possibly can. I do that for both unrepresented parties and younger attorneys, so someone who’s not represented understands why I made the decision I did, and so younger lawyers understand what they did right and what they did wrong.

 

John Schlosser

John Schlosser has served as a criminal defense attorney for the past decade, often working with immigrant communities and Spanish-speaking clients. He serves on the board of Pueblo Unido, a local organization that advocates for immigrants facing deportation and connects them with legal assistance. 

 

Why did you feel called to run?

Originally, I had a mentor in law school, Keith Meisenheimer, who was a judge at the time. He’d been a (district attorney). He had been kind of called to defense work. When I asked him about it, he said he loved his job as a judge more, because he felt he got to help more people. That kind of set me on the path of wanting the same kind of feelings of reward in my work...I’d always promised myself if a seat like this came open, I would run. It just happened to be right after Chief Justice (Martha) Walters signed the directive to keep (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) out of courtrooms, and as much as anything, I really look forward to enforcing that.

More specifically is what we’ve seen in the last three-and-a-half years now: fear amongst immigrant communities about having access to court, and access to justice more generally.

Hopefully I’m somebody that can help instill trust in the system again for these communities. I know I say that as a White male, but I am an LGBTQ community member. I hope that my background reflects more broadly than my skin tone or my gender.

 

What do you see as the greatest challenge in transitioning from attorney to judge?

Knowing you can’t help everybody. I think everybody who’s running right now got into the work because they want to help people, so I think all of us are probably in the mode that we want to help as many people as possible.

As a judge, you’re in a more neutral role--you can help more people, but at the same time, you can’t. It’s counterintuitive that way. Knowing that you’re not the attorney, and you can’t help the person in front of you if things aren’t going their way, would be the most challenging issue.  

 

What have you observed are the greatest obstacles to civil rights enforcement in the county?

It varies from marginalized community to marginalized community. For the community I primarily work with, immigrants and non-English speakers, I think it’s fear of the court itself and what could happen to them there. One of the things I can bring to the bench is for that community to know they can come to my courtroom and not have to be afraid. 

The African American community is not being heard. They very rarely have a voice that is listened to in this primarily White city, and their youth are disproportionately targeted and disproportionately represented in police contact. But at the same time there’s always victims in those areas, and I’m sensitive to that as well. My hope is that restorative justice court can help to reduce recidivism, reduce criminal records and convictions, heal those communities, and give them a voice. 

 

The original version of this article has been updated to correct a transcription error from Sonia Montalbano's interview and to include John Schlosser.

 

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