April 23, 2002 11:00 pm

Three attorneys have surfaced as candidates to replace Eric Valentine as Union and Wallowa counties' circuit court judge when he retires in January.

The three — Bruce Anderson, Kip Roberson and Russ West — appear to have sufficient qualifications for the job. Two of the candidates, Anderson and West, have the experience edge over Roberson, however. The Observer recommends that voters select either Anderson or West in the May 21 primary. This would allow the two to advance to next fall's campaign — with the winner to be decided in the Nov. 5 election.

IT'S POSSIBLE, of course, that Anderson, Roberson or West could gather the necessary 50 percent (plus one vote) to win the judgeship outright in May. But that probably won't occur since all three are campaigning and are gathering support. The likely scenario is that no one will get the majority of the votes, and a November runoff will be needed.

Roberson, who grew up near Medford, was involved in commercial cattle ranching and construction before completing law school in Vermont. In 1997, Roberson purchased Martin Birnbaum's portion of a law practice in La Grande. Roberson's five years of general practice has included criminal defense, personal injury cases, wills and trusts. Recently he has been administrator of the local public defender program, and spends almost 50 percent of his time on indigent defense matters. Roberson says his strongest asset as a judge would be impartiality, applying the law and the facts in providing justice for people coming through the courts.

WEST AND ANDERSON have many more years in practice than Roberson. Each would come to next fall's campaign with his own unique background, style and perspective in the practice of law. Voters would be able to look closely at each man's qualifications, speaking and reasoning abilities, interpersonal skills, knowledge and intellectual power in selecting a judge in November.

West was in private practice in 1983-84, involved in probate, divorce and criminal defense cases. For the past 17 years, he has served as Union County's district attorney, prosecuting thousands of cases and being engaged in more than 100 trials. West's experience in bringing criminals to justice might make citizens uneasy. Would he be fair? West recognizes he would need to change his mindset, but insists he could be impartial as a judge, recognizing the rights of defendants as well as crime victims.

ANDERSON HAS BEEN in private practice in La Grande since 1986 with an emphasis on civil law including real estate, family law, contracts and probate. For five years prior to that, he gained courtroom experience as a criminal defense attorney for a Portland-area law firm. Recently, Anderson has also done work as an arbitrator and mediator for civil, small claims and juvenile court cases. He also serves as a circuit judge pro tem.

Voters in Union and Wallowa counties would be best served by choosing either Anderson or West in the primary, and letting these two veteran attorneys share their contrasting styles, abilities and experiences in next fall's campaign.