FROM THE BENCH
By Ray Linker
Observer Staff Writer
Being a judge may not be as easy as it looks.
"There's a steady workload. Things are pretty constant," said Eric Valentine, who retired last week after almost 20 years as a district and circuit judge in Union and Wallowa counties.
"There's everything from traffic trials to murders, small claims to medical malpractice cases."
In an interview, Valentine discussed some of the cases he has tried. Others he didn't want to dredge up again, he said.
"As a judge, you do see some horrific cases, you see the twisting and the perversity of human nature that most people in this community aren't aware of," Valentine said.
He mentioned the case of Marc Trice, a 16-year-old who attempted to rape his stepsister, then killed her.
"In the early '90s, we had some older teenagers who broke into the mausoleum and removed some fingers from corpses. There was an Elgin fellow who murdered his girl friend, then raped her sister."
He has seen changes in the system, too.
"Over 20 years, I see the court process as much more receptive now to victims, whether they are children or women victims of domestic violence.
"We're more sensitive to the needs of victims. It's an exciting change to see that responsiveness we have now for the victims."
Good people get themselves in bad situations, he said.
"Most of the people are not sociopaths or psychopaths. They are temporarily disoriented and lost but not bad people. They have the ability to change. I feel blessed to be the stimulant in their lives, to help motivate that change."
He has tempered justice with compassion, not hesitant to sentence teenage drunks, game violators and child and sexual abusers to the severest penalty he could impose, often accompanied by a lecture. He told one man he deserved to die in prison.
Once in open court, he chastised a group of people who came to support a man charged with child sexual abuse. The offender was not the victim, he asserted.
He dismissed a case of a man charged with "driving while encumbered" when the man had his right hand around his wife's shoulder. Romance prevailed in that case. He reduced the fine of a motorcyclist speeding down the highway, trying to outrun an oncoming rainstorm.
Some of his sentences have been creative, such as the time he ordered the convicted person to take canned goods to the Salvation Army Food Bank.
"I want to stress what's been rewarding,'' Valentine said. "Despite the evil in the world, I really have seen people change, find redemption, find peace. Many do become very productive people."
Another thing that has impressed him: "I'm totally awed by the survival strength that single moms demonstrate."
Valentine decided a while back to hang up the black robe Â— given to him by his parents when he became a judge in 1983 Â— for the last time at the end of 2002, choosing not to run for re-election as circuit court judge after 20 years as a district or circuit court judge for Union and Wallowa counties. He can retire at almost 60 and receive full benefits by agreeing to serve free as a visiting judge anywhere in the state for 35 days a year for five years, he said. He will be 60 on Feb. 18.
Then-Gov. Vic Atiyeh appointed him to the district court bench in August 1983. The Legislature merged the district and circuit courts in 1997. Wednesday has traditionally been the court day for Wallowa cases, but in Union County there has been court five days a week.
Dec. 31 was officially Valentine's last day, but he was scheduled to preside over cases on Jan. 2, 3 and 6. Why quit now?
"It's basically a six-year term,'' he said. "I knew I didn't want to serve until I was 66. I wanted to give the voters the opportunity to elect a judge rather than have the governor make the appointment.
"And it was time. There are other things I'd like to do. It was a combination of those two factors."
While a judge has to remain apart from those who come before him, Valentine has nevertheless participated in community activities. He's a member of the La Grande Rotary Club; was scoutmaster of Boy Scout Troop 514 for 20 years before giving up that post in June 2002; is a member of La Grande's First Presbyterian Church, where he previously was an elder; is a participant in the non-profit Eastern Oregon Mediation Center; and has been a member of the Wallowa Valley Photo Club since 1992.
He calls the 1988 Silver Beaver Award, the highest national honor the Boy Scouts of America can bestow an adult, "an exciting recognition."
He plans to remain active with the troop, in training and helping boys with merit badge work.
He will keep busy, and he and his wife, Meg, will remain in the area.
"We will stay in La Grande. We have no major travel plans for the first year but are looking forward to having the ability to make spontaneous visits at the last minute or on short notice."
Meg retired as Riveria Elementary School principal in June 1998 and has been a good example of what you can do in retirement, he said. She's president of the Habitat for Humanity group, director of the Think Link Museum for children and very active as a mediator.
He credits his wife as well as his two children with bringing some calmness into his life after a hard day at the office over the years.
"I told those at my retirement reception in Enterprise that I really wanted to thank Meg, (and sons) Matthew and Michael. As a judge, you deal with conflict five days a week. It was always wonderful to return home to the calmness, and I thank them for their support and encouragement."
Matt, 31, married and with two children, soon will become an emergency medical doctor in Florence. Michael, 29, also married, is in law school at Cornell University.
Valentine was honored with a reception Dec. 31 at the Union County Courthouse.
In mid-December, the court staff in Enterprise gave him a reception. The staff good-naturedly presented him with a paper crown from Burger King and a cake inscribed with a quote he made from the bench in 1996 after sentencing an Asotin, Wash., man for a drunken stabbing at a barn dance in Troy.
The quote was: "If I were king, so to speak, I would ban all dances at Troy." A scolding lecture followed, something that Valentine sometimes does before the sentenced person is hauled away.
Valentine has no concerns about his replacement being able to fill his shoes. He said of Russ West, former district attorney:
"I have complete confidence in him. He's a hard-working, thorough individual. Sixty to 75 percent of his work has been in criminal cases, and he'll do an excellent job there. And he's eager to meet the challenge of learning how to handle civil cases. The rules of evidence are the same, so I'm certain he'll do quite well," Valentine said.
It may be hard to sum up 20 years on the bench, but Valentine said, "I can't remember a day when I have not looked forward to coming to the office. Every day has been a challenge and intellectually stimulating coming into a trial, whether criminal or civil. You go into court not knowing what the decision will be, but you hear the evidence and apply the law. It's like an intellectual jigsaw."
There is one thing certain about his own career, Valentine said: He has no regrets.