East Oregonian, Feb. 14, on Bounds not deserving dismissal for college op-eds:
In the most rudimentary civics class you'll learn that a strong and fair judicial branch is critical to our democracy, creating a check that limits the powers of the federal government. To fulfill this role, the judiciary must be filled with fair-minded, learned and honorable men and women.
There are many federal judgeships — 890 — that fill specific roles in that democratic duty, as prescribed in Article III of the U.S. Constitution. The Supreme Court is the highest in the land, but circuit and district courts are also accountable for proper reading and rendering of the law.
No decision falls on a single judge. There is room for our sometimes clunky democracy to play out across several venues, and no single interpretation of the law can stand above the broad understanding held by the majority of these judges.
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But any time an unqualified judge is seated, the integrity of the entire system becomes weaker. These judges are appointed for life, and outside of impeachment by the Congress they serve until they retire or die. Unqualified candidates also lower the bar, so to speak, making room for more partisan politics to play into future appointments and real concerns of character and conduct to be overlooked.
We understand what's at stake. We know that politics will always play a part in appointments. President Donald Trump claims the appointment of conservative Supreme Court Judge Neil Gorsuch as one of the great accomplishments of his first year in office, and many conservative voters listed that appointment as their top reason for voting for Trump. We also know that four of the other judicial nominees selected by the Trump administration have been graded by the American Bar Association as "not qualified."
With all that in mind, it's unfortunate to see Ryan Bounds' nomination to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals take on an unfair tarnish due to a few lines in a few opinion pieces he wrote when he was at Stanford University more than 20 years ago.
There is writing, done at any stage of life, that would be disqualifying. This would include arguments for white supremacy or against free speech, or statements that display an implicit bias against certain people or groups.
Bounds' statements that have come to light so far — in the form of op-eds from the mid-1990s in the Stanford Review — do not nearly meet that standard. While he has admitted they were both tone-deaf and insensitive, we struggle to find anything more nefarious. As a college student he took a little too much glee, it seems, in painting a sarcastic picture of race-based organizations — not the races, but some campus groups — and his musings on punishment for sexual assault allegations presented a lack of respect for victims.
We'd hope that college is a time of sharpening one's mind and viewpoints, and that opinions formed and expressed during that time are not intractably held for the rest of one's life. By that token, we should be very interested in allowing students to express their ideas and arguments without fear of reprisal at some future date.
Bounds said he has matured, and there's ample evidence of that. His professional career in the decades since show him to be a respectable attorney and judge, and a bi-partisan committee that reviewed his nomination found him to be more than capable of the job based on that record.
Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, however, are questioning his qualifications based solely on the writing. Rep. Greg Walden has continued to support Bounds.
It's no secret where the motives lie. The Democratic senators would rather not see a young, conservative judge added this court, and the Republican representative would. It's worth noting that Bounds has a connection to Walden's office — his sister, Lorissa Bounds, is Walden's chief of staff — but neither the appointee committee nor the East Oregonian find that conflict to be disqualifying, either.
What we hope for is a judicial selection process that stays away from partisan politics as much as possible, allowing the best and fairest legal minds to hold important seats that keep our democracy in check.
The Eugene Register-Guard, Feb. 14, on Oregon House approving health care amendment:
Everyone ought to have health care. Everyone ought to have a job, too — and housing, and healthy breakfasts, and safe neighborhoods. Oregonians should not have a constitutional right to any of these things, however, unless the state is prepared to ensure that they are provided. The state is in no position to make such guarantees, yet on Tuesday the House of Representatives voted to place a measure on the November ballot that, if approved by voters, would add the right to health care to the Oregon Constitution.
House Joint Resolution 203 proposes the following constitutional amendment: "It is the obligation of the state to ensure that every resident of Oregon has access to cost-effective, medically appropriate and affordable health care as a fundamental right." The resolution passed on a party-line vote, with all 35 Democrats in support and all 25 Republicans in opposition. It now goes to the Senate.
The Legislative Counsel's office doesn't know whether HJR 203 is a costly promise, or an empty one: "Within the range of options available to the Legislative Assembly to ensure access to health care," the office wrote in its analysis, "one could imagine mechanisms that would have minimal financial impact on the state as well as mechanisms that would have enormous financial consequences for the state."
It all depends on how many weasel words lawyers could find in a constitutional amendment declaring health care to be a fundamental right. It might be argued that language in HJR 203 doesn't actually guarantee health care, but "access to" health care — so the state could fulfill its obligation by publishing a directory of clinics and hospitals.
Others, however, would argue that if voters approve the amendment, their clear intent is that everyone should have health care, and that the state must pay the cost for anyone who doesn't have it. The League of Women Voters of Oregon, a reliable ally of legislators seeking to expand access to health care, said it could not support HJR 203 because of its creation of an implied state responsibility.
If the amendment contained in HJR 203 does not bind the state to provide health care, it's a piece of feel-good legislation that would add clutter to the state Constitution. If it would create an actual right to health care, Oregonians should determine the cost, and figure out how to pay it, before making the promise. Either way, the Senate should let HJR 203 die.
Corvallis Gazette-Times, Feb. 13, on hit-and-run bill surviving first hurdle:
A legislative committee has endorsed a bill from Albany Rep. Andy Olson that seeks to close a loophole in Oregon's hit-and-run laws.
The loophole should be closed. And while we also fervently hope that the circumstances that prompted Olson to introduce the bill in the first place never occur again, that hope likely is in vain.
Olson's House Bill 4055 would modify three state statutes to add language that says drivers who aren't immediately aware that they have injured or killed someone in a crash must call 911 and perform other duties as soon as they learn they were involved.
The bill is inspired by the heart-wrenching October 2013 case in Forest Grove in which two girls were run over as they lay in a leaf pile. The two stepsisters, 6-year-old Anna Dieter Eckerdt and 11-year-old Abigail Robinson, were killed.
The driver of the car that hit the girls, Cynthia Garcia-Cisneros, then 19, was heading home with her boyfriend and brother. She testified that she had felt a bump while driving over the leaf pile, but believed that she had hit a rock.
A jury in 2014 found Garcia-Cisneros guilty of failing to perform the duties of a driver. She was sentenced to three years of probation.
But last May, a judge with the Oregon Court of Appeals overturned the conviction. The judge ruled that Oregon law does not require a driver to return to the scene of an accident after leaving and later learning that someone was injured or killed. The court also found that there was insufficient evidence to establish that Garcia-Cisneros knew or had reason to know that she hurt the girls when she drove over the leaves.
Olson's House Bill 4055 would require drivers who discover only after leaving the scene that they might have been involved in a collision that resulted in injury or death to immediately contact 911 and provide information about the incident to the dispatcher.
Olson has said that the bill is structured so that it doesn't constitute self-incrimination when a driver reports the details of a possible collision after the event, but that issue could be the bill's weak spot: At a hearing on the measure last week, a legislative representative for the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association argued that the bill could be open to challenge under the Fifth Amendment, which prohibits self-incrimination.
But Bracken McKey, the Washington County prosecutor involved in the Garcia-Cisneros case, argued that the bill doesn't violate the Fifth Amendment. He said the bill doesn't change the information drivers must provide to authorities after a crash; instead, it just mandates that those drivers who aren't immediately aware of the possibility that someone was hurt or killed in a crash report exactly the same sort of information required of drivers who do stop at the scene of the crash. McKey dubbed the bill "Anna and Abigail's Law."
The hearing last week on the bill also featured emotional testimony from the mother of the girls, Susan Dieter-Robinson. According to an account of the hearing in The Oregonian, she told legislators that "If the law changes, our girls will have had a small piece in making that happen, and that will make us very proud." She also called the collision that killed her daughters "a perfect storm."
Olson's bill, which cleared the House Committee on Judiciary last week with bipartisan support, is an excellent example of exactly the type of legislation suitable for the short 35-day sessions that the Legislature holds in even-numbered years. It doesn't represent a huge new policy direction. It merely makes a small modification to an existing law.
But it's still important. We hope that no one ever has to go through anything like the perfect storm Dieter-Robinson and her husband endured. But something similar eventually will come into play — and when it does, the provisions in House Bill 4055 could make a difference.
The Oregonian/OregonLive, Feb. 11, on child welfare audit being much more than 'just politics':
How many blistering evaluations does it take to illustrate a child welfare program is utterly failing the young people it's supposed to serve and protect?
It should be one. Yet in Oregon, it's closer to a half dozen.
The most recent, an extensive audit by the Secretary of State's Office, echoed some of the problems that were outlined in earlier critiques, including one dating back to 2002.
The audit, released Jan. 31, found Oregon's Department of Human Services has failed to collect critical information leading to some bad decisions about the placement of children in foster care. The agency hasn't supported foster families and has had no statewide plan to recruit new ones. Morale is so low, it's hard to retain case workers, yet as many as 700 are needed to sustain the current foster care program.
Hobbling all efforts to rebuild, the agency has failed to track even the most basic of data points on children, current and prospective foster families or employees. One number is known — that Oregon places about nine out of 1,000 kids in foster care. That's nearly double the national average. But no one is sure why, or whether that helps children or not.
This yearlong, deep dive into a troubled agency was appalling, especially for an agency responsible for children.
Yet Gov. Kate Brown and state lawmakers aren't acting like it.
Democratic lawmakers say it'll take years to address problems that were decades in the making. They argue that they just budgeted an additional $30 million to address some of these issues.
Corvallis Democratic Sen. Sara Gelser told Oregonian/OregonLive reporter Hillary Borrud "one of the reasons we have new leadership is because we've had rigorous oversight from the Legislature over the last two to three years. That has pushed this issue forward with the governor's support to get that done."
Lawmakers who meet sporadically — this year for just 35 days - aren't the ones who can consistently ride this issue. That's Gov. Kate Brown's job and foster children need more than her "support" to get that done. They need her leadership.
But Brown's office appears too busy deflecting the audit's results.
In an email reported by the Salem Statesman Journal, Brown's spokesman Chris Pair claimed audits from Secretary of State Dennis Richardson's office were "just about politics."
In fact, work on the child welfare audit began a year ago, before Richardson, the only Republican in a statewide elected position, took office. It was ordered by his predecessor, Democrat Jeanne Atkins.
Richardson and the auditors were disappointed by the comments and addressed them in an email to the governor. Brown, a former Secretary of State, should know better than anyone how auditors strive to be objective and independent watchdogs for the state.
There's no room in this crisis for such divisive deflection of the facts.
Oregonians have been assured over and over that these problems were being addressed. We now know those efforts failed. We need more information, more often to be sure that this sinking ship is being sufficiently righted and put back on course.
Let's take a cue from Brown. She's asked the new human services Director Fariborz Pakseresht to provide monthly reports on his progress, which she'll in turn publish online. But earlier such reports have lacked detailed data, critical analyses or context.
We need regular assessments from Brown's office providing detailed progress on her clearly communicated and measurable goals for hiring and training caseworkers, supporting and certifying foster families and creating a centralized system to accept complaints of suspected child abuse and neglect. That's to assure Oregonians that the 11,000 children moving through the system are not forgotten.
Several leaders have cycled through top positions at the Department of Human Services as these problems have continued. Voters, too, will soon have a chance to make their own decision about leadership.
Baker City Herald, Feb. 7, on not waiting to help foster kids:
Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson has done his job by compiling an audit of the state's ailing foster care system.
The question now is whether the Legislature will do its job.
The audit describes a system that fails to protect some of Oregon's most vulnerable children. The Department of Human Services (DHS) doesn't have enough caseworkers, auditors concluded. The resulting workload has contributed to an employee turnover rate of 23 percent in 2016. Incredibly, DHS officials last year asked the Legislature for money to hire fewer than half (300) of the 770 employees that auditors say are needed.
The 59-page audit found that many of the agency's problems have been festering for years, but that DHS officials' response "has been slow, indecisive and inadequate."
The foster care system's institutional troubles can't be fixed quickly. That will require consistent, long-term efforts by Fariborz Pakseresht, who took over as DHS director in September.
But the Legislature, which convened last Monday in Salem for a five-week session, can do something before it adjourns.
Rep. Knute Buehler, the Bend Republican who is running for governor, has called for lawmakers to allocate $50 million to the foster care system, possibly by boosting the state's cigarette tax.
Yet Sen. Sara Gelser, a Democrat from Corvallis, argued that giving DHS more money now wouldn't help because the state doesn't have a plan to use the money efficiently.
DHS doesn't need a plan to hire caseworkers, a move that would have a nearly immediate benefit on current employees and their clients.
Gelser is right in saying that the foster care system's problems are "decades in the making." But that doesn't excuse the Legislature from acting now to start reversing the troubling trend.