Enterprise Attorney Tom Powers offers criminal defense services for both paying clients and those who qualify for a court-appointed attorney in Wallowa and Union counties. (KATY NESBITT/The Observer)
ENTERPRISE — Diversity is the key to a successful Wallowa County business, an ideology local attorney Tom Powers adopted before hanging his shingle in Enterprise.
A partner in a law firm that specialized in medical device and pharmaceutical claims, Powers continued this work after his family moved to Wallowa County in August 2011.
“The firm had cases all over the country, so I was traveling or doing things online,” he said.
Powers telecommuted until last fall, when he said the firm was winding down. In October, he said he officially started taking local clients and still does some contract work for the remaining partners.
Locally, he is concentrating on non-injury civil litigation and with small and emerging businesses, giving advice on tax identification numbers, setting up limited liability corporations and partnerships and purchasing insurance coverage.
He is also adding criminal law defense to his list of offerings — for hire and as a member of the Union and Wallowa County consortium of public defenders. He said his experience in civil law gives him a solid foundation to practice criminal law.
“I’ve been a trial lawyer since 1998,” Powers said. “I’ve always had a litigation focus. A lot of what you do in a courtroom is the same in a criminal case or a civil case — you have to know the facts of the case thoroughly, both your side and the other’s. You have to come up with a narrative for the jury that explains the facts. The rules of evidence are the same, deciding what things are admissible or inadmissible, and you have to look for bias when choosing a jury.”
Already, Powers has a full caseload with half of his criminal defense work coming from Union County.
“For people who qualify, I’m appointed as a criminal defense attorney; those who don’t qualify can retain me,” Powers said.
He said he took advantage of La Grande Attorney Janie Burcart’s impending retirement to throw his hat in the ring to serve as a public defender. Powers is the first to work as a court-appointed attorney in Wallowa County for a long time.
Powers said Union and Wallowa counties make up what is known as Oregon’s 10th Judicial Circuit Court and share a group of five attorneys who contract their services for public defense.
He said in Portland there is a nonprofit, the Multnomah Public Defenders, that is like a law firm exclusively for people who qualify, but in smaller legal communities, attorneys contract with the state.
To qualify as a member of the consortium, Powers said attorneys need a good deal of jury trial work and a basic familiarity with criminal law.
He said he attended continuing legal education classes and worked with Ann Morrison, a La Grande attorney who is a member of the 10th Judicial Circuit’s public defense consortium.
“I participated in hearings with her so I had the bona fides to participate in the contract,” Powers said. “Showing up and seeing how it happens is the most effective way to learn.”
Powers said last fall he sat through some of Wallowa County’s arraignments, hearing pleas and sentencing before becoming a qualified public defender. He said the basics of preparing a civil case and a criminal case are similar.
“It’s not just the facts, but helping the jurors arrive with a better verdict with the fullest, most compelling story,” he said. “Truly, the entire system does depend on that people are innocent until proven guilty. As a defense attorney, you still stand up and make the system work because if the system doesn’t work and no one is standing up, you could find yourself with a non-guilty person charged with a crime,” Powers said.
For now, Powers is assigned only misdemeanor cases as a member of the consortium, but he said he is working on a felony case for which he was retained.
Making plea deals with the district attorney’s office is a part of getting a fair sentence for his clients, Powers said. When jail time is included in a sentence, he said he looks at the DA’s recommended sentence and determines if work crew or community service can be done in lieu of jail time or if time can be served on the weekends so the defendant doesn’t miss work.
He said he thinks in some cases doing jail time can be a wakeup call.
“It’s a shock to the system with consequences creeping up on them,” Powers said. “For a lot of people that jail time is punishment and society feels they have exacted justice. What’s then really important is having a whole system in place in their lives to keep them from going back and making bad decisions.”
He said he works with the drug treatment court that helps defendants avoid people with whom they get in trouble and to change their habits with drinking and drugs.
As for going to court, Powers said he tells his clients, “Be there early, be respectful. I only want to represent you once.”