Court is adjourned for Oregon Supreme Court judge
For Richard "Dick" Baldwin, "equal justice under law" is more than a phrase inscribed on the front of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.
It defines an Oregon legal career spanning more than four decades, starting as a staff attorney with Multnomah County Legal Aid and climaxing as an Oregon Supreme Court justice.
Baldwin officially retired from the high court this spring, when he turned age 70. But the Portland lawyer remains a part-time trial and appellate judge and a full-time dispute resolver.
He also remains active in a continuing effort by Oregon courts to eliminate racial and ethnic biases from the system.
After his clerkship with an Oregon Court of Appeals judge and until his own appointment to a Multnomah County judgeship, Baldwin spent most of 25 years as an advocate for people who often could not afford legal representation of their own. Those years coincided with the development of legal services for the poor in Oregon and the nation.
"The rule of law to me means that everyone needs to have equal access to the justice system so that they also can have full advantage of the benefits of the law," Baldwin said in an interview.
"During my career, I've seen a strong movement in that direction, taking a more expansive view of the law. I hope we can continue to develop in that way, because that's where public trust and confidence in the law are secured."
He felt the lure of public service as he graduated from high school in San Jose, California, in 1965.
"As a young adult, I was seeing on television everything happening about civil rights. Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' speech (in 1963) had a big effect on me," he said. "So it was a combination of public service and interest in civil rights issues that drew me to law school."
More than a decade later, after he earned his law degree at Lewis & Clark College and did legal work for an Oregon Court of Appeals judge and an Oregon Supreme Court justice, Baldwin was hired as a staff attorney specializing in family law for Multnomah County Legal Aid.
"It was an eye opener and a difficult job, handling child-custody cases for the most part," he recalled.
Also part of his workload was representing survivors of domestic violence and tenants under Oregon's 1973 landlord-tenant law. Baldwin later joined the Oregon Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Baldwin worked under the supervision of Michael Marcus — later a circuit judge, who died earlier this year. "And he became one of my mentors as a Legal Aid lawyer."
In 1981, Baldwin joined with Stephen Brischetto to form a law firm representing injured workers and specializing in civil rights, employment law and Social Security. Based on his experience, he also was a pro-tem judge in domestic relations in Multnomah County Circuit Court.
After his one-time mentor, Marcus, was appointed to the bench, Baldwin returned to Multnomah County Legal Aid in 1991, this time as director of litigation.
In 1996, when Congress put restrictions on federal money for legal services — among them a ban on fee-generating cases, limits on class-action lawsuits and no representation of farmworkers and prisoners — Baldwin became the first executive director of the Oregon Law Center, which operated with no federal funds.
To make the center operational, Baldwin said, Legal Aid programs had to agree to divert some money they were getting, and the Oregon State Bar launched its continuing Campaign for Equal Justice.
Unlike criminal cases — a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision requires legal counsel for criminal defendants — "there is no Gideon case for civil matters," Baldwin said.
An estimated 40 percent of such cases involve family law — and 80 percent of Legal Aid clients are women.
Baldwin said a couple of states (Oregon excluded) do require legal representation in child-custody cases, but legal counsel is involved in only a fraction of civil matters involving low-income people.
Despite the best efforts of the Oregon State Bar and others, he said, "It's gotten only worse in recent years."
Still, he said, legal representation for those who cannot afford it must go beyond whatever time lawyers themselves can donate, in what is known as pro bono work.
"There have to be legal services programs," he said.
Being a judge
In 2001, Gov. John Kitzhaber appointed Baldwin, then in his early 50s, to a Multnomah County judgeship.
"After you have been a litigator for awhile, a lot of lawyers stop thinking it's the greatest thing since sliced bread," he said with a laugh.
"The adversary approach certainly has its place, but it can wear thin over the years, and you start to look for other ways to get results and maybe better outcomes in certain types of cases."
Baldwin took over supervision of the county's drug court, which was the second one in the nation when it was founded in 1991. (The first was in Miami, in 1989.) Participants follow an agreed-upon course of treatment; violators are subject to sanctions, such as jail time.
"It's a different role for a judge than sitting in the middle of an adversarial dispute. The judge is more of a mediator," he said. "They're called problem-solving courts, because you are reaching to solve a problem rather than determine facts or impose punishment."
Baldwin said drug courts have helped pay for themselves in reduced jail time and repeat offenders — but the key is the availability of treatment.
Several years later, in 2008, Baldwin helped institute the county's first mental health court, which drew on his experience with drug court.
"It's similar because it's referred to as a treatment or problem-solving court," he said. "It's different based on the fact that some people with serious mental health issues find it's difficult to remain in a sustained recovery."
Before he started the court, Baldwin said he underwent the same 40-hour training as police officers in how to deal with mental health crises.
"By default, law enforcement and jails have become the institutions we have decided are going to address the problem, even though they are not set up to do it," he said.
On to Supreme Court
In 2012 Baldwin decided to seek an Oregon Supreme Court seat being vacated by Robert Durham at the end of his elected term. It was a rare open seat; justices often retire before the end of terms and let the governor choose a successor, who rarely faces an opponent in the next election.
"It was a form of temporary insanity on my part," Baldwin said with a laugh.
Baldwin won a November runoff against Nena Cook, a Portland lawyer.
For about three years afterward, a majority of the justices were directly elected by the voters without prior appointment — the first time in a century.
During his more than four years on the high court, Baldwin was just one of two justices who had been a trial court judge. Most appeals of circuit court decisions go to the Court of Appeals; the Supreme Court accepts only a fraction of such appeals for review.
Do trial judges get it right most of the time, when the appellate courts uphold their decisions?
"I think it's the luck of the draw," Baldwin said. "Trial judges make a lot of decisions every day, so many close calls, about issues of evidence and legal challenges. For a number of decisions you make, there is not going to be a bright-line rule and you are making your best judgment."
Like its federal counterpart, Baldwin said, when the Oregon Supreme Court takes up an appeal, it usually is for a purpose other than deciding the individual case.
"It does not so much decide the case, although the outcome is determined," he said. "But in so many of those cases, the justices are deciding a principle of law. They are clarifying the law so that judges and lawyers understand what principle applies."