BACK IN COURT

November 02, 2002 12:00 am
Martin Birnbaum (The Observer/PHIL BULLOCK).
Martin Birnbaum (The Observer/PHIL BULLOCK).

By T.L. Petersen

Observer Staff Writer

Martin Birnbaum says he won't shy away from pursuing plea bargains once he takes office as Union County district attorney on Nov. 18.

But criminals shouldn't be comforted by that statement.

"That's just my style," says Birnbaum, who was appointed by Gov. John Kitzhaber Wednesday to fill the remaining 19 months of Judge-elect Russ West's term. "I'm very interested in protecting the community. I am a very stubborn — my wife calls me pugnacious — trial attorney and I have no problems taking cases down to the wire.

"But a trial is not always the only way to resolve something."

Birnbaum, who moved to Union County in 1990, became a criminal defense attorney active in the area of public defense, working to defend those who don't have the funds to mount a legal defense.

Before moving to La Grande he worked for a time in the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office, prosecuting cases.

"I would have stayed with the district attorney," Birnbaum admits, "except for the terrible traffic in Portland."

Having been on both sides of the courtroom, Birnbaum poses his theory that defense attorneys and prosecuting attorneys really aren't that different.

"I've always felt that defense attorneys and district attorneys can work together. They are both seeking justice," he says. "I feel I'm coming back home."

Coming back to prosecuting, maybe, but Union County can expect a different style of leadership in the district attorney's office.

"Russ West and I are different people," Birnbaum says. "I'd like to put my vision on the district attorney's office — I'd like the office to reflect me and my vision."

Birnbaum, who often faced West from the opposite side of the courtroom, now grins and says he's looking forward to working with West in West's new role as judge.

In administering the DA's office, Birnbaum says he will look at ways to make the office more efficient.

While details of saving money still must be worked out, Birnbaum notes that when he arrived in Union County there were about 450 cases with indigent clients — those needing public defenders — going through the court each year.

In 2001, about 1,200 cases requiring public defenders were recorded. Birnbaum thinks he can reduce that number — and the strain on the judicial system's indigent funds.

But why would Birnbaum, who retired more than a year ago and gave up his law practice so that he and his wife, Linda, could spend more time traveling and horseback riding, seem more than ready to take on the job of district attorney?

"I like practicing law," he said. "I have a very strong faith in our judicial system. I've been to places and lived in times where people don't have the legal protections they have today, and I really want to see the legal system work well in Union County."

That point was driven home to Birnbaum when he learned that West had won the judgeship in the spring. The Birnbaums were in Turkey, he thinks, when they heard. And that is a place where legal protections are far different that in the United States.

"I'd already made the decision that if Russ (West) won, I'd throw my hat in the ring," Birnbaum says.

Even his wife "has been 100 percent supportive of my going back in," something that surprised him since she has always been the more reluctant partner when facing moves or major career changes.

Birnbaum also says that in a final interview with the governor for the district attorney's post, he made "a pledge to try to involve the community more in the criminal justice

system."

That point, he says, seems to echo the governor's own concerns.

"When I spoke to the governor, he talked about working with and in the community. He talked about the importance of the district attorney's relationship with the community."

Birnbaum has no problem with that theme, since he sees his new role as a way to repay the acceptance he's found here.

Long interested in juvenile justice, Birnbaum expects to be active in supporting the county's Teen Court program and other juvenile issues.

"If you can turn someone around as a juvenile, you're not going to deal with them in the adult (justice) system," he says.

And what about the next election for district attorney, in 2004?

"If I do a good job, I will want to continue that job," Birnbaum says with something of a sly smile. "I'm really looking forward to this."

Reach T.L. Petersen at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it