Judge Wolf, Berthelsen make case to voters
On April 28, incumbent judge John Wolf debated challenger Caleb Berthelsen at Best Western Plus Hood River Inn, before a meeting of the Hood River Rotary. The following is an edited transcription of that debate
Introduction and opening statements
I am a Navy veteran, five years straight out of high school, three years on board nuclear submarines before separating and going back to school, where I earned a master’s degree in sociology and a professional law degree from Willamette University. I spent more time in the courtroom than in the classroom. I worked for both the Marion and Polk county district attorney offices, and have been practicing law in the Gorge since 2020 as a criminal defense attorney with Morris & Sullivan PC.
When I moved to The Dalles, I learned we only had one judge that could hear criminal cases. That is the primary reason I am running for judge. It’s a large judiciary; we need two full judges, not one judge who can hear civil and criminal cases, and one judge that can only hear civil cases.
I have experience as both a prosecutor and as a defense attorney, giving him a unique perspective. I’ve sat with and consoled both the victim of a brutal assault, consoling them and preparing them for trial, and I’ve sat with those accused of major felonies, preparing to defend them. Being on both sides of that gives you a unique perspective, because you understand there is a human element to every crime, no matter what side you are on.
I’ve had plenty of lived experience; I’ve served in submarines, which is truly one of the hardest jobs in the military, making hard decisions under high stress with a lot of pressure to deal with.
I believe these experiences, including my time practicing law, have prepared me for this lofty position. I believe our judiciary here in Hood River, Wasco, Sherman, Gilliam (and Wheeler) counties deserves to have a fully functional judiciary, on where all the judges to do all the work.
There are four judges in our district, serving five counties, and all four of those judges serve all five counties.
I was born and raised in The Dalles, went to Oregon State University, and received a law degree at Willamette University College of Law.
I then returned to The Dalles and worked 15 years as an attorney, representing clients in a wide variety of cases in just about anything you could imagine. Family law, criminal law, real estate and business disputes, contract disputes, again, anything you can think of. My practice was primarily litigation focused. I also served, in that time, as municipal judge (City of The Dalles) pro tem, which included both bench and jury trials, as well as sentencing. I also reviewed search and arrest warrants.
Since becoming a circuit court judge in 2011, I’ve presided over cases in all five counties in the district ranging from multi-million dollar class action lawsuits to serious felony criminal matters, to small claims and traffic tickets. I’ve also handled family law matters (like) protective orders, restraining orders, (as well as) probate matters and juvenile matters. In just the last five years, from 2017, I’ve presided over nearly 700 trials of all types.
Prior to taking the bench I served on several committees and boards in the community, including some related to court operations. As an attorney I provided pro bono legal counsel to a variety of nonprofit organizations in our area, including representing the buyers for Wasco County Habitat for Humanity houses for a period of time.
Since taking the bench I served on a variety of local and statewide committees related to the court system, including the Council on Court Procedures, which reviews amends and maintains the rules of civil procedure which dictates how you do things in the courtroom. I served on the Chief Justices Landlord and Tenant Pandemic Work Group, which focused on how to handle eviction cases during the pandemic — as you may be aware those were extremely complicated, and the law seemed to change about every two weeks.
On the personal front I’m married. Leslie and I have to girls, 20 and 18, and we also live with a couple of dogs who pretty much run everything around the house.
I’ve wanted to be a judge for as long as I can remember. Being elected to serve as your circuit court judge is probably the greatest honor of my life. I love it and enjoy it even when it can be incredibly difficult. That challenge is rewarding and every day it’s something new and different, giving me an opportunity to use my legal training and experience to give back to the community and help resolve people’s disputes.
I believe I have the experience, judgment, temperament necessary for the job, I believe I have demonstrated those qualities while serving as a judge in both the municipal court and in the circuit court. I have a total of 26 years of experience as both an attorney and as a judge. My opponent, as he said, has two years of experience as an attorney, and I think experience matters in this position.
My challenger has mentioned the conflict created by my wife serving as a deputy district attorney in the district. While it’s true there is a conflict that prevents me from hearing criminal cases in some of our counties, it’s not the problem it has been purported to be throughout the campaign.
There is not a backlog of cases, there are not people who are waiting for their day in court. I’ve dealt with the issue for over 11 years, I also dealt with it in the pandemic, and we still don’t have a backlog of cases. While I certainly hope the conflict, at least in Wasco County, is resolved soon, even with that conflict there are plenty of non-criminal cases for me to deal with. Last year I had 26% of the total time in the courtroom throughout the district. Judge Stauffer, the other judge in the county, had 25%. As I mentioned, in the last five years I’ve heard nearly 700 trials ranging from civil and criminal jury trials to small claims and traffic tickets. During that same period Judge Stauffer heard 125 trials. I think that demonstrates I’ve handled my fair share of the cases and I hope to continue to do so.
Q. Beyond ruling on cases that you hear in court, what do you believe is the role of a judge in the overall judicial system and community as a whole?
Outside the court, I think we can help drive a community toward better results then can happen in a courtroom, we can encourage and advocate for improvements in systems. For example, we can advocate for additional resources for drug treatment, or additional resources for mental health treatment, which are significant issues within our district, they affect cases from criminal to family law to dependency matters. I think it’s important for us to be there to do that.
I think it’s also important for us to help identify areas that we think communities need to address, again like mental health and drugs. We can also help maintain, and this is happening here, a civil law. There are stories I hear from attorneys in areas I won’t talk about where the attorneys don’t get along, and it’s a much more hostile system. Fortunately here, in our small communities, attorneys run into each other all the time, they understand they need to work together and for the most part they do. Every once in a while you need to check people, so they keep that in mind, and I think that’s important for a judge to do as well.
I think there is a lot a judge can do outside the courtroom, an elected official should be a figurehead for the community. I try to spend as much time as I can being a volunteer at my children’s school, we try to get involved in community groups. The biggest thing is being a member of the community, especially in an area like Hood River and Wasco County, they are smaller counties and its important people know and trust their elected officials. The more we are involved with helping create good policies the better.
I agree there is a lot judges can do for mental health and drug treatment. And I think there is a lot we can do for our veterans, who suffer from various ailments and injuries and mental health problems that come from serving in the military. I’ve seen some very effective types of treatment courses aimed at veterans, and that is one thing I think as a judge I can help in, to reduce a problem in the community and give back to the people who serve us.
Q. What are your views regarding psychedelic drugs as a treatment for PTSD and other issues?
I’m not a doctor, and I can’t say what the benefits of psychedelic drugs in treating mental health problems is, but in Oregon we recently passed legislation to allow research into that; there is some evidence that there might be some benefit in using psychedelic drugs to treat mental health issues. If there is evidence it can be helpful, that it can cure or prevent mental illness, then I think that is something we should explore. Mental illness is one of the largest underlying conditions for crime in our communities and the more people we can get off the street and get into a stable condition, the better. If psychedelic drugs get us there, great. I fully support that. If the evidence shows they don’t help, then they should go back into a regulated category of drugs of that type.
It’s important to keep in mind that judges and the judiciary aren’t policy makers. That is the legislative and executive branch and Oregon voters through the initiative process. The voters did pass a law that legalized certain uses of psychedelic mushrooms. If it works, great, if it doesn’t that is something the legislature and the voters will have to take a look at. If its legal, we take an oath to follow the law and we are going to hold it. If it becomes illegal, we will follow that to.
Q. The propriety of our current bail system has become an issue recently. If you’ve got money, you can get out of jail, and it’s easier to litigate a case if you are out of jail. If you don’t have money you don’t get out of jail, and it’s easier to prosecute somebody who is in jail. What are your thoughts on that?
Oregon is in the middle of changing our bail system. Senate Bill 48 comes into effect July 1. It is really going to rehash what our bail system looks like. Folks (accused of) lower level, nonviolent, non-personal crimes are effectively going to be released very quickly essentially with no conditions. Folks (accused of) certain types of crimes are going to have conditions imposed. For example, say a drunk driving case, that person will be released with conditions that they don’t drive or use intoxicants, but will be released without posting bail. Those accused of more violent or personal crimes will have bail assigned. That is all going to be set forth in an order that comes out of the court from the presiding judge. Those are currently being worked through right now with the chief justice and the department to figure out where we are going to be.
The current situation has come under fire — effectively someone who doesn’t have money may be accused of a crime and stuck in jail, doesn’t have the ability to get out, to maintain a job, to maintain housing, those types of things. Someone who does have money is able to get out. That is inherently an unfair system, that’s not a good result. We do have to keep in mind there are some people who do need to remain in custody or public safety, but we need to filter that very carefully to make sure that we aren’t holding folks who don’t need to be held unnecessarily. That is the approach the Senate bill is attempting to take. Did they hit the nail on the head? I don’t know, we will find out. If they didn’t we will have feedback from the legislature and hopefully they can make whatever necessary tweaks needed so that we end up with a fair system that works and balances out public safety.
The bail system we are operating under is essentially unfair; if you have money you get out, if you don’t you don’t. Judge Wolf did a really good job of explaining the system we are trying to move to. Is it perfect? No, I don’t think so. But it does put a lot in the hands of judges to make judgment calls about, ‘Is the person someone we can let out, who won’t commit additional crimes, without having to take money out of their pocket?” Money they could use to feed their kids or pay their rent. I think that’s a good thing. I don’t know if there is a perfect system out there to address this. You can’t just let everybody out because there are a lot of people who will not stop committing crimes, and on the other hand you can’t hold everyone who is accused in jail. It really is a question of balance. It’s important to understand that regardless of how it works, it is a system judges have to work with, even if particular judges don’t like the system or how it is set up. Judges have to follow the law, they don’t get to change it.
Q. District 7 covers five counties, should that be changed? And if so, how?
Our district is set up the way it is because there are not enough cases in the eastern counties, Sherman, Gilliam and Wheeler, to warrant having a full time judge just for those counties. The only real change that could be made would be adding a judge or splitting Hood River County off and having just Wasco County with the eastern counties. I don’t think either of those really makes sense. It is a very unusual judicial district, and it is kind of cool in that way. It’s a system that works. The judges can take the time to go out and do the work in those eastern counties and you don’t have to worry about a judge not having enough to do in those counties. So no, I don’t think it’s something that needs to be changed. It’s a system that works.
I agree. You could split off those three eastern counties, but they would end up having to go to a different judicial district, which would end up with four or five counties as well. Frankly, I don’t want to give up going out to Wheeler, Gilliam counties, I enjoy those folks out there. It’s a good system that works. Particularly with modern technology, we’ve got the ability to appear out in Gilliam County even for a five minute hearing by video. It may not be as good as being there in person, but it’s a lot better than appearing by phone, which we used to have to do, or have a judge be on the road for five hours for a five minute hearing. We can do warrants electronically, with an email and an iPad. It works and I don’t see a good reason to change it.
I think we should focus on experience in this election. While judges, like lawyers, do have requirements to engage in continuing education, there is not an apprenticeship program for a judge once they get to the bench. The training is what you’ve done before becoming a judge. I have 15 years of experience in a wide variety of cases as an attorney, and 17 years working as a pro tem municipal court judge when I was originally elected (as a circuit court judge). I’ve served in my current position for 11 years. My opponent has two years of experience as an attorney. Experience matters when you are dealing with the complex legal issues that a judge faces every day, and experience should matter to you as a voter.
There are two judges in Wasco County right now, Judge Wolf and Judge Stauffer. Judge Stauffer has been very forward … that having a judge that can’t do criminal cases is a problem. It’s a system that is broken and needs to be fixed. I might not have as much legal experience as Judge Wolf, but I do have plenty of life experience. I’ve served in the military, and been in some of the roughest conditions on earth. I have the ability to make hard decisions under pressure. I do have, despite my youth, have a broad range of legal experience. I’ve served in the civil world, in the Department of justice, I’ve dealt with all aspects of the law faced by a circuit court judge. I’ve defended in cases ranging from DUII to very serious felony cases. I hope I can come to this role to secure our judicial system as a fully functional judiciary. Thank you.