Max Denning

Thirteen circuit court judges who were appointed by Gov. Kate Brown were up for reelection around Oregon this year. Many of them ran unopposed.

In only two circuit court judicial races, the governor-appointed judge was defeated. In Linn County, Judge Fay Stetz-Waters was defeated by Michael Wynhausen, a deputy district attorney. Closer to home, in the Union and Wallowa counties Circuit Court judge race, La Grande lawyer Wes Williams defeated incumbent Mona Williams.

While judicial races are non-partisan, if a position is vacated mid-term, the new judge is appointed by the governor, the state’s most prominent political figure. Mona, a Republican, who was chosen by Gov. Brown in May, made the point that the Democratic governor had “crossed party lines to appoint me” at the Union County Candidates’ Forum in October.

Partisan opinions were not absent from the contested races. Among the unprecedented number of letters to the editors submitted to The Observer by Mona’s and Wes’ followers, many called out the candidates’ political affiliations.

The governor appointed Linn County’s Stetz-Waters to the bench in October 2017. At the time of her appointment, Stetz-Waters was working as a civil rights investigator for Oregon State University. Her opponent, Wynhausen, received endorsements from a number of law enforcement and Republican political leaders in the county. He won by almost 17 percent.

Brown, who won reelection this month, received less than 30 percent of the vote in Linn County, while her challenger, Republican Knute Buehler, received more than 60 percent.

In Union and Wallowa counties, Mona received support from a number of prominent Republican lawmakers, such as Rep. Greg Barreto, and law enforcement organizations in both counties.

While Republicans dominated almost every election in Union and Wallowa counties, Mona was defeated by Wes, who has worked as an attorney for 22 years in La Grande. Wes, who registered as a non-affiliated voter for the 2018 election, was criticized by multiple individuals who wrote letters to The Observer for being a “Democrat” and being supported by the “most liberal element of our community.”

Wes said he will be politically independent as a judge, as is required by law.

“I want to make sure people know I can be fair and I won’t bring politics into the courtroom,” Wes told The Observer Monday. “I changed my voter registration to non-affiliated when I decided to run, so I would have skin in the game.”

Wes was elected with 52.67 percent of the vote in Union and Wallowa counties, where the governor received less than 27 percent of the vote and her appointed judge was defeated.

The Observer previously reported Wes had been considered by the governor for the circuit court judge opening, but Wes disputed he was ever vetted.

“There was never really a serious attempt to consider my experience as a lawyer representing people or to look into my background,” he said. “Not a single reference was called. That’s one of the reasons we decided to run a campaign and let the people decide. The people of Union and Wallowa counties know my record and background much better than the governor would ever care to know.”

Wes will take office in January. Before then, he is seeing through his final cases as a lawyer, including defending a man in a DUII case and making an argument in front of the Oregon appellate court in December.

Wes has spent his entire time as an attorney in private practice, defending those charged with crimes, settling land disputes and helping locals set up businesses. He said running his own practice will help him as a judge.

“We need a judge who has represented regular people, who is not a government lawyer,” he said.

When asked about his priorities as a judge, Wes said he wants to make sure individuals’ constitutional rights are protected in his courtroom.

He referenced a 2009 attempted murder case in Wallowa County, where then-Wallowa County District Attorney Mona Williams and Scott Jackson of the Oregon Attorney General’s Office argued in favor of restricting media coverage. Judge Philip Mendiguren issued an order stating the media could not report on testimony until the trial was over, which was scheduled to last two weeks.

Wes was the defense attorney in the case and said he argued against the order.

“The press has a right to report on public trials,” he said he told Judge Mendiguren. “Secondly, it’s a matter of free speech. The press and anybody watching a trial has the right to speak about what happens in that courtroom, as long as it doesn’t impair a fair trial. My client in that case and all defendants have a right to a public trial. The government, in that case, was about to violate three very important constitutional rights.”

After a meeting with the judge, Wes, Mona, Jackson, and reporters covering the trial, the judge revoked his order and the media was allowed to report on the trial.

Wes went on to list a number of constitutional rights he’ll work hard to protect as a judge.

“Those are the only rights criminal and civil litigants have when they go against the power of the government or huge corporations,” Wes said. “In court, you’re equal to the U.S. government. You’re equal to the government of Oregon, to the largest corporation in our nation. But, you’re only equal if those rights are protected and honored by the court.”

When it comes to gaining the trust of law enforcement and other public officials who supported Mona’s campaign, Wes said he isn’t too worried.

“I’ll gain their trust,” he said. “I’ll work hard to gain the trust of all the citizens so they know I’m a fair judge. My role in the law up until now has been as an advocate, and I’ve been an advocate for individuals who have been charged by the government. But once I’m sworn in, I won’t be an advocate anymore. I’ll take an oath to be neutral. I’m going to honor that oath just as zealously as I honored my oath to be an advocate.”

Wes said he will close his private practice after he is sworn in as judge in January. He stopped taking litigation work when he began his campaign last June. He will rent out his law offices, but he said a deal hadn’t been finalized yet so he couldn’t name the new tenants.

Wes said he will miss being an attorney.

“I think I am going to miss the trial work,” he said. “I am going to miss the clients. It’s invigorating to take on a new case.”

But, when asked about how he felt about becoming a judge, Wes said he was excited and confident he could do the job.

“I know I can do the work,” he said. “I’m not over confident about it, it’s a matter of sitting down and putting in the work. And it’s work I like to do. My dad loved building houses, I love doing legal research.”

Mona Williams did not return request for comment.