January 10, 2002 11:00 pm
Phillip Mendiguren ().
Phillip Mendiguren ().

By T.L. Petersen

Observer Staff Writer

Judge Phillip A. Mendiguren of the Circuit Court of Union and Wallowa counties enjoys one of the jokes going around among judges.

The judge explains the best and worst thing about being a judge. I get to make all the decisions, Mendiguren says, explaining the best thing.

The worst thing? I get to make all the decisions.

Seldom a laughing matter, serving as a judge handling everything from small claims cases to murder trials is something Mendiguren enjoys.

So much so, in fact, that hes decided to run for a second term.

While three attorneys are campaigning to succeed retiring Eric Valentine for the courts other judgeship, Mendiguren is unopposed. Candidates have until early March to file.

Mendiguren was elected in 1996 after a three-way primary election didnt result in any of the candidates winning more than 50 percent of the vote. In the general election, Mendiguren, a lawyer in La Grande since 1978, won the race.

A graduate of Gonzaga Law School in Spokane, Mendiguren has appreciated the work hes faced since becoming a judge, including last years Liysa Northon case that drew the attention of Court TV. There has been so much to learn, he said. And that learning has made him a better judge today.

As a judge, the most trying moments have been the number of intensely personal cases in which there is no jury and the judge is left to reach a verdict alone. People involved in those types of legal matters, Mendiguren says, take them very personally.

His approach in personal matters is, I do the best I can. Thats what judges do.

During his first term on the bench, Mendiguren said he has had his decisions appealed a few times, as he would expect. But only a few parts of those decisions were repealed, he said, noting that being a judge is never easy because even the seven judges serving on the state court of appeals seldom reach a decision in complete agreement with each other.

A new duty has recently come Mendigurens way. To begin the new year, he was appointed by Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace P. Carson Jr. to serve a two-year term as the presiding judge for the Circuit Court in Union and Wallowa counties. Mendiguren will take the post from Valentine, who has been the presiding judge for 11 1/2 years.

I want to continue to be innovative with the Circuit Court in sentencing, treatment, mediation, arbitration and all programs that affect the public, victims, defendants and those individuals that make use of our court system, Mendiguren said.

I never want to be so comfortable with my job that I am not open to making helpful changes.

What makes a judges job possible, Mendiguren added, are the attorneys handling the cases and the experienced court staff that assists him.

If there are questions about a case, the attorneys, both prosecution and defense, educate you pretty quickly, he said. And there are the courts own research capabilities and other judges to call on.

Such a case, Mendiguren said, occurred before and during the murder trial of Liysa Northon in Wallowa County.

Believe it or not, I enjoyed that, Mendiguren said. Not the situation, he clarified, but the case involved excellent attorneys, a well-prepared and chosen jury, representatives of Court TV that Mendiguren called the nicest people, very professional, and personal support from a retired Vale judge.

As he looks ahead to serving on the bench for another term, Mendiguren believes hes a better judge now than five years ago, in part because of working with Valentine. We dont always agree, but it works out.

The day-to-day process of being a judge, he adds, is better than any law school education.

Hell admit that his least favorite part of the legal process involves restraining orders.

Mendiguren has to wonder, he said, how much of the truth of the story behind restraining orders hes actually hearing.

And one more part of a judgeship thats not enjoyable court budgeting and the administrative paperwork.

I like the justice issues, dealing with people, he said, giving thanks for the abilities of court administrator John DeNault and his staff.

Even as the courts throughout Oregon face state-level budget cuts in coming months, Mendiguren says his intention is that programs such as drug court, teen court, family court and small claims mediation, arbitration and other non-traditional courtroom programs will continue in both Union and Wallowa counties.

I dont think well have to cut services much at all, he said.

While some decisions that Mendiguren makes may feel like the trials facing fabled King Solomon, the local judge prefers to remember the court cases where everybody walks away happy.

And, a grinning Mendiguren says, I have had some of those.