November 18, 2001 11:00 pm

By T.L. Petersen

Observer Staff Writer

Who will sit in the black robes in the 10th Judicial Court after next years elections?

Three Union County lawyers have already said they will seek to fill the position of resigning Judge Eric Valentine, who has indicated that after almost 18 years on the bench he wont be seeking re-election.

The three declared candidates, Bruce Anderson, Kip Roberson and Russ West, all stated last week that they will be campaigning for the position now filled by Valentine.

Anderson, a La Grande attorney, will be making his second run at the position after a bid for the vacant judges seat in 1996. Roberson, another La Grande attorney, is making his first bid for election, and West, the district attorney, is seeking the position after announcing he wont seek another term in his current job.

All three men talked to The Observer last week, looking ahead to the campaign. There will be a primary election involving the three, although judicial elections are non-partisan. The two highest vote-getters will be on the November ballot, unless one candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary.

Bruce Anderson announced his candidacy Friday, although he wont be filing officially with the countys clerk until today or tomorrow.

Anderson has practiced law in La Grande since he and his wife, Katy, opened a law office here in 1986. Anderson grew up in Grande Rapids, Minn., but received his law degree from Lewis and Clark School of Law in Portland. After passing the state bar exam in 1982, he originally worked in Lake Oswego.

But both my wife and I are small-town people, he said, and that brought them to La Grande. They live near Morgan Lake and have three children, a stepson in Portland, and two daughters, a junior and a seventh-grader in La Grande schools.

Anderson finds the idea of campaigning for a judges position something of a conundrum, since judges are not allowed to take political stances by state law, say how they would vote on certain issues, and they are supposed to be impartial weighers of a court cases legal points.

Ive been interested in the work of a long time, Anderson said. Its important for a judge to have experience, and I feel I have the most breadth of experience of any of the candidates. As an attorney, Anderson notes that hes done both civil and criminal work, appellate court work on both the defense and complainant side of the aisle, and has been active in mediation and arbitration work.

Judges, Anderson says, decide cases on the facts and are not supposed to be swayed by public opinion. He also sees judges as having a role in educating those watching the court action to understand what is happening and in understanding the roles of those involved.

Judges in Oregon now have many limits set on them through ballot measures that set pre-determined sentences for many crimes, but Anderson sees the judge as still being the one to make sure that the punishment fits the crime and the criminal. You want consistency, he said, but I dont think people want cookie-cutter justice.

Judges, he says, do their job by watching for a fair weighing of facts and maintaining a balance.

Anderson has been working as a pro-tem judge since his appointment by fellow attorneys and the state courts system.

Kip Roberson came to law through a different path than most ranching.

I grew up in Oakland, Oregon, on a sheep ranch, he says. He worked in ranching and construction for several years before heading for college at age 29 at Eastern Oregon University to get a degree in range science.

While at Eastern, Roberson decided to pursue law and went to the Vermont Law School, basically so his wife, Belinda, a third-grade teacher, could find work while he studied there.

But even as they left for Vermont, the Roberson knew their plans had them coming home to Oregon, Roberson said. Roberson graduated in 1997, came back to Oregon and took his bar exams and then went to work for Ricker and Birnbaum. Jonell Ricker is still Robersons partner in their La Grande firm.

Roberson thinks he would enjoy the third-party role of being a judge, away from the advocates role of defending or prosecuting the client. A lot of what the judge is doing is making decisions on legal issues, he says. As an attorney, hes already doing that when he decides if a case has legal merit.

Roberson knows his fairly short time as a lawyer will bring some criticism his way during the campaign, and thats one reason he been campaigning for several months already. As for his experience, Roberson points to having life experience, not just law, and as a lawyer handing 15 to 20 cases a month at minimum not only as a private attorney but as a court-appointed attorney. The mix of cases and his years in court, he says, have given him a wide variety of experience.

Robersons style, he says, would be what hes learned from the many judges hes appeared in front of.

Roberson also says he has two goals on the bench. First, to be completely impartial and to handle cases with no pre-conceived notions, and second, to apply the law properly in making legal determinations.

Russ West is putting his experience as the countys district attorney since 1985 and his record with a variety of cases out before the voters as he makes his first attempt at the bench.

A native of Montana, West received his law degree from the University of Oregon Law School in 1980 after having been involved in ranching, construction, oilfield work and as a smokejumper. As a lawyer, hes been in private practice and is also a special assistant U.S. Attorney able to prosecute federal cases. Hes been president of the Oregon District Attorneys Association.

West points to his involvement with helping to set up the Mount Emily Safe Center and his requirement that all convicted drunk drivers attend a Victims Impact Panel as key parts of his work in recent years. Hes also been involved in the community as a member of the La Grande Lions Club and as president twice of the Eastern Oregon Livestock Show.

Hes been a youth soccer coach and involved in the Boy Scouts program. Hes active in his church and serves on the board of directors of the Grand Ronde Symphony Association along with working with other agencies.

Every defendant is unique, West says, and a judges duty if to find the facts and apply the law.

West adds that hes proud of what hes been able to accomplish as district attorney, and the chance to surround himself with qualified people.

He says hes glad that some cases have been closed, including that of the person who caused the arson-caused death of an Elgin man. And hes glad that $100,000 a year since 1988 has been approved for funding the Eastern Oregon Drug Task Force.

I have a lot of respect for Judge Valentine, West said. There are some things Id do different, and some Id to the same. Having appeared before a lot of judges, West says he would use the best of what hes seen to do the job of judge.