Exclusive Interview with Chief Justice Balmer

Paul: [00:00:02] So what was your career pathway into law and how did you become a Supreme Court justice?


Chief Justice Balmer: [00:00:07] So, coming out of college I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do but I was a good talker, And people often said well you should be a lawyer. I liked politics and government, and I went directly from college to law school. I would not recommend that for people these days in particular. I think, for me at least, a law degree was a good degree and it’s given me a really interesting career path. But I went to law school. I’m from Oregon originally but I went to college in Ohio at Oberlin College and then went to law school at the University of Chicago. After graduating I went to Boston and practiced with a big law firm there for two years moved down to Washington D.C. and worked for the U.S. Department of Justice for a year and then for a big firm in Washington D.C. When I turned 30 I said gosh do I want to live in Washington D.C. the rest of my life? No not really. So I moved back to Oregon. So back here I worked for a law firm downtown and did all sorts of work in litigation we call it sometimes it’s in court sometimes it’s disputes before arbitrators, but representing individuals but also businesses in their disputes with other persons and businesses. And with the government, basic litigation, state court, and federal court and I specialized in antitrust law, price fixing, and restraints of trade and things like that. .


Chief Justice Balmer: [00:01:53] I represented some banks and did some work for some shoe companies, pipe companies and all sorts of other sort of interesting businesses as well as some particular individuals. And then, Ted Kulongoski became attorney general in the early 1990s he asked me to come down to Salem to be his deputy, his number two at the Oregon Department of Justice in Salem. So I commuted from Portland to Salem for four years as his deputy which was a really interesting job, working with the heads of the different agencies, and the governor, and also helping manage the Department of Justice which that time had you know some 300 lawyers. I also had an opportunity to argue a case to the United States Supreme Court which was really a lot of fun – scary at the time – but a lot of fun. It was one of those experiences that just doesn’t come to you very often in private practice if you’re a lawyer in Portland Oregon. After four years there I went back to Portland to my law firm, and I’d been active in issues involving the bar and in political matters. When John Kitzhaber needed to fill a spot on the Oregon Supreme Court in 2001, he appointed me to the Supreme Court. So I went right to the Supreme Court. I was never a trial judge or on the Oregon court of appeals. I went right to the Oregon Supreme Court in 2001, and as an appointee by the governor, I had to run for election the next the next general election of 2002. And then I’ve had to run every six years since then. I’ve never had an opponent. So, I have won those elections, and I became chief justice in 2012.


Chief Justice Balmer: [00:04:04] The chief justice is selected by all seven of us on the Supreme Court. So I’ve been doing that for the last six years. And that is really interesting for me and it’s been a good use of some of my skills that I didn’t really use as just a member of the court. Where we were mostly writing opinions and doing legal research. As Chief Justice, I spend half my time, probably little more than half my time, being the manager and the administrator of a big government agency. We have 1700 employees, we have 200 judges spread all across the state. I have a budget that I need to get through the legislature, and I’m always working on a number of administrative matters whether it’s building new courthouses, or working on electronic filing which we are now doing, all our cases are electronically filed. Nobody brings pieces of paper down to the court anymore, it’s all electronic and we have electronic document access via the Internet. And I’ve been working on those sorts of projects in my Chief Justice capacity. .


Paul: [00:05:28] How do you deal with the stress and the work? I imagine you always have a lot of cases to work on, and your decisions carry a lot of weight. .


Chief Justice Balmer: [00:05:36] You Know, I think that and I think this is true for judges, lawyers, and really people in all walks of life, including students frankly. There is stress and stress is not all bad. I mean stress is one of the things that makes us perform well. It’s exhilarating to deal with a challenge successfully. I do think that in jobs that are stressful – and again I include being a student as part of this – you need to make sure that you’re spending time exercising, that you’re trying to get seven or eight hours of sleep, that you are hanging out some with your friends, and not just spending all your time on work stuff. .


Chief Justice Balmer: [00:06:32] But You really also need to put in the time on the work. And so I run, I play tennis, I go to indie rock concerts, and I eat and cook and spend time with my wife my kids. One of my kids is living in New York now, and one’s in Berkeley. So I don’t spend that much time with them, but we visit them when we can. So I think that just in terms of of dealing with with stress, for me it’s balancing the work, and realizing that I have to just sort of push through. Sometimes you run into roadblocks, like writer’s block when you’re trying to do a paper. We have those problems when we’re writing opinions – “Gosh, how should this come out, this is a tough issue” – or I’m dealing with a difficult personnel issue: a judge who maybe ought to be retiring now but can’t quite decide that he or she is ready to retire. How do I deal with them and try to convince them what’s going to be a good thing for them and for the court system. So I try and put in the work, but I also try and exercise and I try to eat healthy, and I spend time with with family and friends. I think that you know a balanced life is really important particularly when you have a job with a lot of stress. .


Paul: [00:08:11] How would you describe your judicial philosophy? .


Chief Justice Balmer: [00:08:14] You know, I don’t think that much about my judicial philosophy. We decide in our court – and this is true for most of us – we decide the cases as they come before us one at a time. If observers, newspapers or law reviews want to look at the decisions that we’ve come up with and say: “Well these justices are more libera,l or they’re more conservative, or they’re more moderate, or they’re originalists or living Constitution types”, that’s sort of for them to to decide. We try to decide the cases based on the law and the facts that are before us. We look at the words that the people who framed the Constitution put in there. When it says that justice is to be administered completely and without delay, what did they mean by those words? Not only what did they mean in 1857 (when our constitution was adopted), but how do we apply those to contemporary realities?. Because they didn’t have the internet, they didn’t cellphones, and they didn’t have cars. So we don’t say: “Oh well they only had wagons pulled by horses or oxen and therefore these provisions don’t apply to motor vehicles or electric cars”. We look at, and we try to apply the basic principles. .


Chief Justice Balmer: [00:10:32] But, The contemporary circumstances within which we decide are cases really drive this as well. So we’re not originalists in the sense that we think the Constitution is fixed in 1857 or 1859, and in fact, they probably didn’t think it was fixed that they were writing a constitution that was going to be interpreted for years to come. So we interpret those constitutional provisions the same way we interpret statutes, which we do a lot. Those are passed by the legislature. What did the legislature mean when they wrote this statute? That’s our goal. And we decide the case, and if the legislature thinks that we got it wrong then they can change the statute. But we never forget that there are real people behind all these cases. Even the minor debt collection case, or a landlord tenant dispute, or if somebody is not being paid what they’re supposed to be paid as an employee are important to somebody, even if the dollar amounts are not that big. We try and remember that there are real people often on both sides behind these cases. So we don’t have political agendas. We believe in the rule of law. We believe in equal protection under laws and equal access to justice. The big sign over the Supreme Court in Washington D.C. says equal justice under the law. .


Chief Justice Balmer: [00:12:20] That’s What we try and do: we uphold constitutional rights, treat people fairly, and apply the statutes that the legislature enacted. They’re the people’s representatives they were elected to write laws. We were not elected to write laws we were elected to interpret and apply the laws.


Paul: [00:12:58] Have there been cases that you wish you could revisit?


Chief Justice Balmer: [00:13:05] Not really in this job. We just decide a lot of cases. We’re sometimes not sure exactly what’s the right answer. Oftentimes there’s really no clear cut right answer. But one of the things about being on the court is we have to come up with an answer anyhow. The legislature has to adopt the budget. Other than that they don’t have to do anything. If they say oh here you know should we change the pension system. Well they can say “Oh it’s too difficult”, we’re not going to do it”, or “should we change the way we fund high schools around the state, well you know it’s not broken or not badly enough broken”. If a case comes to us we have to decide it. We can’t say that’s too hard.


Chief Justice Balmer: [00:14:03] What I was surprised at when I got to the court was there a lot of cases where it’s not oh this is 100 percent the correct answer. And the other side they have a zero case and there was never any doubt about this. A lot of them are: “Which is the better answer?”. What do we think the legislature meant here? Should this person be able to bring a lawsuit over a certain kind of injury. They saw a bad accident but they weren’t physically injured by it. Can they recover? Can the mom or the little brother, who saw their child/older brother run over by a car and now have emotional distress sue over that? And we had a case saying no, if you weren’t actually hit or at least grazed, then you can’t sue just for emotional distress damages. And we reversed that old case and said no, there really are circumstances where you should be able to, and this is one where the boy had seen his brother run over by a truck by five feet from him and suffered serious emotional distress. And we said yes, we think you ought to be able to bring that case. .


Chief Justice Balmer: [00:15:42] But It’s not like the other side had a bad argument, because we don’t want people suing all the time: “Oh somebody was you know I saw the accident, I was driving by and I saw crash on the side of the road and it really distressed me, I want to sue about that”. Well the other side would say that we shouldn’t allow those cases, because then the courts would be full of that stuff. People suffer emotional distress all the time. At the school people are suffering emotional distress because somebody didn’t ask them out to the prom or somebody or their team lost at tennis because somebody screwed up or didn’t show up that day. So there’s a lot of emotional distress. How do you limit the kinds of cases people can bring under these really serious circumstances. So the the other side that the insurance company representing the driver who hit this kid unintentionally. They’ve got good arguments too, so here’s a case where maybe this side has a 65 percent argument, and the other side has a 35 percent argument, and you have to choose one or the other. So that’s a long way of saying that we have to decide hard cases. And if you’re going to be a judge you have to sort of move on to the next case. And it wouldn’t be healthy to sort of sit back and think: “Oh gosh did I do the right thing there?”, and worry about that a lot. There are sometimes things that I wish I had put in some opinions, just some other and other paragraphs saying: “The other side had a good argument too, it just wasn’t the best argument. And there are some things I would have added to opinions, but I can’t think of anything really anything important where I should have done something different. .


Paul: [00:17:52] How do you and your colleagues handle disagreement? .


Chief Justice Balmer: [00:17:51] We have a really collegial, friendly court. Everybody gets along really well. As with any group of people, you’re closer to some people than others just because of similarity of background. Those of us that have kids of a similar age tend to talk about those things. But we are all people of goodwill, trying to figure out the right answers to these questions. So we do have disagreements about which way the law ought to go. We have disagreements about whether the rights of the defendant in a criminal case were violated, and therefore this state should not be able to introduce some evidence in the case. We have disagreements about who ought to be able to recover damages, and how much in some circumstances. But I think that what saves it, compared to the U.S. Supreme Court, for example, where they see each other mostly just at an oral argument. We get together on a regular basis, at least every other week, and talk about our cases and we have that sort of level of friendship. We often have lunch together. It is important in overcoming the disagreements that we inevitably have. So when I think that we have the friendships we have because it’s Oregon, and you know we’re informal. Nobody has that big of an ego. None of us got to this job without having sort of an ego. So everybody has a little bit of an ego. But nobody’s is too big for his or her britches. And we like each other personally, but I think we also all feel that nobody has an agenda on our court.


[00:19:52] Nobody is trying to drive the court in favor of the prosecution or the DA, or in favor of the defendants, or in favor of the unions, or in favor of business. We’re just trying to get to the right decision based on the law that’s applicable to the case that’s before us. And when you look at it that way you realize that a lot of these cases are not all 100 percent right and zero percent wrong, or 100 or zero percent right or wrong, but are sort of in the middle. And my colleagues and I are trying to get the right result. It’s just because of the way we read an old case, or the way we read the statute, and what the legislature intended. And that makes us come to a different conclusions sometimes. But in this respect we will collaborate, we’ll have a majority opinion, we’ll have a dissent, and then we’ll move on to the next case. .


Paul: [00:21:25] Do you enjoy your job?


Chief Justice Balmer: [00:21:27] Oh Yeah. It’s a terrific job, but it’s not for everybody. It has been a good job for me. I came to the court because I liked it. I did some appellate work as a lawyer. I like reading the briefs, I like the legal research. If you like writing term papers in college or even in high school, then this could be a good job for you, because you’re writing one term paper after another, you’re having six really smart people send it back with red marks all over it about things that ought to be different. And then you’re writing another draft. And I’ve particularly enjoyed being Chief, because I think my skills lend themselves to managing a large group of people and keeping this organization — which is very important to our state government — moving in the right direction. My skills also lend themselves well to adapting to the 21st century, and adapting to the changes that are going on, in the demographics of our state and in technology, and I’ve enjoyed that part of it too.
Paul: [00:22:57] Thanks for your time. balmer

Leave a Reply!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s