Max Denning

Longtime La Grande lawyer Wes Williams has begun moving into his new office in the Union County Courthouse, and next week he will officially be sworn in as the circuit judge for Oregon’s 10th Judicial District, which covers Union and Wallowa counties.

After a six-month campaign challenging incumbent Judge Mona K. Williams, who was appointed by Gov. Kate Brown in May 2018, Wes came out victorious in November. Wes, who has been a lawyer in La Grande since 1996, won the election with 52.67 percent of the combined vote from both counties. Mona was one of two governor-appointed circuit court judges to lose their re-election bid. The other was in Linn County, where Judge Fay Stetz-Waters was defeated by Michael Wynhausen, a deputy district attorney.

Almost two months after election day and less than a week until he is sworn in, Wes has been busy. While his priority has been preparing to take his seat on the bench, he is also working on moving out of his office in the West-Jacobson Building on Elm Street. The office will not be unoccupied — Laura Eckstein, an attorney who opened her own practice in June 2018 and works as a municipal court judge in Elgin, is renting the space and is moving into the office today.

Over the past week, Wes has moved more than 400 books from his Elm Street office into both his home and his new office in the Union County Courthouse. Wes said more than 1,000 books will remain at his old office until he makes room for them at home. All of his necessary office furniture has already been moved to the courthouse.

“Other than hanging some pictures on the wall, we are pretty much finished moving in,” Wes said.

While less physically tiring than moving hundreds of books, Wes’ more daunting task over the last two months has been preparing to begin his time as a judge. Lucky for Wes, his learning process will include a number of experienced mentors. Williams spent two days in December shadowing Presiding Judge Thomas Powers.

“I’ve had the chance to watch (Powers and the courthouse staff) work in court,” Wes said. “Judge Powers has shown me his daily routine and how the courthouse runs.”

Wes also sat down with outgoing judge Mona Williams and went over her current docket, including the cases Wes will preside over. Wes said he admired Mona and her campaign.

“I want to congratulate Mona,” Wes said. “She fought a good, hard, vigorous campaign.”

The Union County Courthouse staff also gave Wes a two-inch-thick, approximately 500-page binder called the “Judge’s Bench Book.” Wes likened it to an encyclopedia for judges.

“It has information on everything you possibly need to know as a judge,” Wes said, noting the binder contains guidance on all the different types of trials.

He said in recent weeks he has been studying up on family and juvenile law, which are the first types of cases he will be presiding over.

Wes complimented the courthouse staff for their help in acclimating him and for their work ethic.

“They operate in the courtroom in a way that is so professional, it has a calming effect on all of the litigants,” Wes said. “How hard they work is very heartening. That’ll make being a judge easier.”

Wes said he does feel added pressure to make correct decisions as a judge.

“If I make the wrong decision, it can cause havoc in someone’s life,” Wes said.

During the campaign, Wes repeatedly brought up the importance of establishing a courtroom culture in which everyone feels like they receive a fair trial. In an interview Tuesday, Wes had not changed his tune.

“I’ve said all along, I want all people to feel welcome in the courtroom to say their piece regardless of their gender, their race or their ethnicity,” he said.

Wes will be sworn in on Jan. 7 at the Union County Courthouse in a public ceremony.