Judges from the Class of 1977 Reflect
The year was 1974. The heat of the Oregon summer was fading and the cool breeze of fall was blowing in. If you were looking for the law school in 1974, you would find it on 11th and Kincaid at Grayson Hall, now known as McKenzie Hall. The first day of classes were buzzing with nerves, excitement, and hope for a future in law. Three years later, these feelings were still there, but for new reasons. The class of 1977 had graduated and it was now time for these budding lawyers to enter into the working world.
It has been 35 years since the class of 1977 bid farewell to the School of Law. In a class that had 179 openings and 1,200 applicants, it is no surprise that this class has found itself with many successes. Within this group, 13 of these graduates have been elected or appointed for a judicial seat in both the state of Oregon and Washington. This makes the class of 1977 the largest group of graduates holding court than any other.
Today, we celebrate and acknowledge the work these many graduates have accomplished throughout their immersed in the law. Throughout the course of several interviews, five judges from the class of 1977 shared their stories about their paths to the bench and the years that followed.
The Path: A Pleasant Surprise
For many of the graduates, the path to becoming a judge was unexpected. For Oregon Supreme Court Justice Martha Walters there was no particular course but rather an opportunity. “I had been doing what I loved for a long period of time,” said Judge Walters about practicing law for almost 30 years. When there was an opening for the court, Walters was encouraged by her peers to apply and she believed that applying would give her the opportunity to contribute to the court in a new way while continuing to learn more about the judicial system.
Like Judge Walters, Chief Judge of the Oregon Court of Appeals David Brewer was encouraged by lawyers at the Bar to apply for a judicial vacancy because of his time as a civil practitioner and his broad range of experiences. He decided to put in his bid only once. “I can’t say I ever planned to be a judge, but I was given the opportunity and I was willing to take a shot at it and I’ve never had a minute of regret,” he explained.
For both Judge Terry Leggert, now a retired from the Marion County Circuit Court, and Yakima County Superior Court Judge Blaine Gibson, the desire for a seat on the bench developed over time. Judge Leggert worked as a deputy district attorney for eight years and was an appellate attorney for three years. In her work, Judeg Leggert “spent a lot of time in the courtroom,” and it was there she felt she could most make an impact based on her experiences, both professionally and personally. When there was an opening, Judge Leggert put in her bid, had an interview, and three days later she was appointed to the bench.
Judge Gibson always knew that he wanted to be a litigator and he soon accomplished this at a small court in Portland. After three years, he decided to move to Yakima, Washington, and became an associate at a firm where he could continue with litigation. Judge Gibson was active in the Bar association both locally and statewide and got to know a lot of attorneys, which helped him when he ran for a seat in court.
For Circuit Court Judge Martin Stone, the path to becoming a judge was rather straightforward. After graduating, he practiced law in Springfield with a firm he clerked at during school. He decided to move back to his hometown, Coquille, Oregon, and practiced law from 1978 to 1998, which was the year he was appointed as Circuit Court Judge by the governor.
Challenges and Accomplishments
The transition to becoming a judge does not settle overnight. With great power comes great challenges and responsibilities. For Judge Walters, the actual transition was one of the most difficult challenges to deal with. Judge Walters explained that in practice, she was responsible for people and assisted them in difficult times. “It is easier to see when you have been helpful when you have your own clients,” she explained. In the court, personal interaction is limited and she now is responsible for an entire system of laws and the rule of law. “You have to trust that you’re doing the best you can.”
“I don’t know that you overcome a lot of the challenges that you see as a judge, you just learn to deal with them,” said Judge Gibson. The biggest challenges he has faced during his time as a judge have been dealing with other lawyers. Judge Gibson explained that, “it’s difficult to be calm and respectful to those who are not.”
For Judge Leggert, the beginning of her time as a judge proved a difficult adjustment. A major challenge was the weight of decision-making. Judge Leggert explained, “as an attorney, you advocate for different positions but as a judge, you make the decisions.”
One way Judge Leggert got through this challenge was seeing the differences she was making in the lives of individuals who came through her court. After seriously punishing a woman for a series of crimes, Judge Leggert received a thank you letter from the woman she convicted upon her release from prison. “She thanked me for saving her life.”
Moments like these make the hard work and sacrifice worth it. When asked about their biggest accomplishments on the court, all of judges responded similarly. It is not about the greatest moments in the court, but rather it is about doing their best every day.
“You should be most proud of keeping your head down and doing your job,” said Judge Brewer. He added that he comes into work each day and looks forward to problem solving. He takes pride in helping people move forward in their lives in a fair and just manner.
Like Judge Brewer, Judge Stone has “always considered each case to be important” and that is the attitude he brings into work every day.
Judge Gibson continued to echo these sentiments, “I go to work every day and I do the best I can.”
Tying back to the UO
Although it has been 35 years since these judges were attended law school classes, there were lessons learned at Oregon Law that have remained throughout their careers — namely, the value of relationships. Whether it was a friend or a professor, the relationships continue to live on. Both Judge Leggert and Judge Gibson were strongly affected by their professors. “Generally, it felt like everyone wanted you to succeed,” said Judge Leggert. The most important lesson Judge Gibson took from his professors was the emphasis on remaining civil to every person. He also learned the importance of being professional, even in an often adverse system.
Judge Brewer, Judge Walters, and Judge Stone emphasized the importance of friendships. Judge Walters and Judge Stone continue friendships today that were forged during law school. “What a difference it makes having these colleagues and friends,” said Judge Walters. Not only have these friends seen her entire life experience in law, but they developed a community of support for one another. Judge Brewer considers some of the friends he made at Oregon Law his family. He appreciates that he can discuss experiences, worries, fears, etc. “I treasure those friendships more than I can express.”