Alyssa Sutton

After serving in the public sector for the past 32 years, Judge Russ West, who presides in Union and Wallowa counties, said he is looking forward to backpacking, skiing and traveling following his retirement this summer.

West will be retiring from the presiding circuit court judge position June 1, before serving five years as a senior judge. As a senior judge he will preside a total of 175 days in the next five years throughout Oregon, averaging 35 days a year. As a senior judge his role will be filling in for judges who are unavailable due to vacations or family emergencies.

West said the most memorable part of his career has been the role he played in the Union County Circuit Court’s drug court program.

“I think it’s one of the most effective ways (to help individuals struggling with drug use),” West said.

“Since its inception, (the drug court program) has had 371 participants, and we’ve graduated 149,” he said. “We’ve had an 80 percent success rate for folks who have been out of the program for three years or less. (This means) that they’re not getting arrested or convicted of any crimes.”

West explained that participants in the drug court program include individuals who have been convicted of drug crimes or of driving under the influence of alcohol.

“The program started in about 2002 for drugs, and in 2008 we added drunk drivers to the program,” he said.

In order to be in the program, individuals must show the desire to get assistance with their addiction and plead guilty to their crime. They then go on probation for 18 months, which is the length of the program, during which time they must go to court once a week, submit to a urine analysis twice a week, attend treatment such as Alcohol Anonymous or Narcotic Anonymous, and attend school, work or perform some sort of community service to “stay busy,” West said.

“If they’re doing well after 18 months, they graduate from the program,” West said, who added that graduates are given a basket with candy bars and books upon completing the program. “If they’re still having problems (after or during the 18-month program), they will either go to jail or have community service.”

Aside from drug court, West said he has also has enjoyed assisting families work through divorce and custody issues.

“I see myself as a problem solver,” he said. “Someone who listens to both sides and decides what would be best for the kids. I have a lot of experience doing that, and I feel like I have been able to make a difference. My goal (in divorce and custody battles) is to show compassion for the kids and to try to minimize the trauma they go through.”

West has spoken multiple times at “Helping Children Cope with Divorce or Separation,” a required class for parents who have filed for divorce or separation.

The judge, who started out as a deputy district attorney in Wallowa County, said he’s had a good career. After a year as the deputy district attorney, the University of Oregon law graduate had his own private practice, where he handled a variety of cases, for two years. He then re-entered the public arena as district attorney in 1985. In 2003 he was appointed as the Union and Wallowa County Circuit Judge, a position he has held for fourteen years, taking one year off in 2016.

As circuit judge, West sat on several committees and was a part of several large projects.

Locally, he was on the committee that worked to obtain the funding for a new Union County courthouse in 2013.

“We had the worst courthouse in the state,” West said. “I was part of the committee that looked at different sites and funding.”

He said that the committee failed the first two years they approached the state legislature for funding.

“The third time, the legislature granted us $2 million, and the county provided the rest (of the funds),” he said. “In my opinion (the building) was a big success, and everyone who comes to this courthouse seems to appreciate it. It took a lot of my time and energy.”

See complete story in Friday's Observer