The View from Oregon’s Highest Court
“State judicial elections in the United States are becoming a perfect storm,” said Paul J. De Muniz JD’75, chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court. “Currently, 39 states elect their judges. The loosening of rules regarding what judicial candidates may say and the financing of judicial campaigns by special interest groups have the potential to erode the public’s confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary. We need to do something about that.”
Preserving the public’s confidence in the impartiality of an elected judiciary has been a point of emphasis for De Muniz for years. In a 2004 article for the Albany Law Review (Vol. 67:3), he cited a national survey that found eight out of 10 people believe campaign contributions to judges influence those judges’ decisions. In the article, De Muniz predicted that number would rise if “judicial campaigns feature a combination of outcome-determinative special interest rhetoric, as well as stump speeches by judicial candidates promising certain judicial outcomes.”
Despite the fact that he ran for reelection in the fall of 2006 (albeit, unopposed), De Muniz remained focused on the task at hand — the administration of Oregon’s courts. As chief justice, De Muniz serves as the administrative head of the Oregon Judicial Department and oversees a $304 million biennial budget, 200 judges and 1,800 employees across the state. It is a level of responsibility he never imagined, growing up in a working-class neighborhood in Portland.
Following graduation from high school, De Muniz enlisted in the U.S. Air Force to earn benefits for college under the GI Bill. He served nearly four years in the military, including a tour in Vietnam during the war. When his military service ended, De Muniz returned to Oregon and enrolled in Portland State University as a sociology major. “While at Portland State, I took a constitutional law class and became interested in law,” he explained.
De Muniz was accepted into the College of Law’s Class of 1975. Between his second and third years of school, he clerked for the state public defender’s office in Salem. The position afforded him the rare opportunity to argue a homicide case in the Oregon Court of Appeals while still a law student. “They had never had a law student argue such a significant case on the defense side before,” De Muniz said. “The judges read my brief and let me argue the case — a Miranda issue. The conviction was reversed, and the case was sent back for a new trial.” [State v. Nicholson, 19 Or. App. 226, 527 P.2d 140 (1974)].
After he graduated from the College of Law, the public defender’s office offered him a full-time appellate attorney position. “The work was interesting,” De Muniz said. “I did a lot of felony appeals. Representing people accused of crimes is difficult. I tended to carry their burdens around with me.”
After 18 months with the public defender’s office, De Muniz moved to private practice, where he became a partner in the firm Garrett, Seideman, Hemann, Robertson & De Muniz PC in Salem. “It was a tremendous law firm with great partners — all Willamette people,” said De Muniz, who handled complex criminal and civil trials, as well as appeals.
“When I joined the firm, I didn’t plan to do criminal law,” De Muniz explained. “But one or two months after joining the firm, the son of a good client was accused of murder. I successfully defended him, and it led to more criminal work. So I tried cases and did appeals, which is a rare combination.” During his 13 years with the firm, De Muniz handled 14 homicide cases, including four death penalty cases.
In 1990, De Muniz received a call from then-Governor Neil Goldschmidt about a vacant judicial position on the Oregon Court of Appeals. “I hadn’t applied, but he asked me to interview for the position,” said De Muniz, who served as a judge on the appeals court for more than 10 years, including three years as a presiding judge on one of the three appellate court panels. Although he was initially appointed by the governor, De Muniz subsequently was elected to two six-year terms.
While on the appeals court, De Muniz was appointed by U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen to serve on the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS). During the three years that he served on the committee, De Muniz visited U.S. troops at military installations around the world and prepared reports on issues affecting women in the military. His travels with DACOWITS took him to Bosnia, Italy, Germany and Jordan. He also spent five days on a nuclear submarine.
More recently, De Muniz helped establish a partnership between the Oregon judicial system and the judiciary of Sakhalin, an island in eastern Russia. He has worked with judges and attorneys throughout the Russian Far East to reform the Russian criminal justice system, including the right to a trial by jury.
In 2000, De Muniz set his sights on an open position on the highest judicial court in Oregon. He won a hotly contested five-way primary and then prevailed in the general runoff election. He joined the Oregon Supreme Court in January 2001. Last fall, when Wallace P. Carson Jr. JD’62 decided to step down as chief justice, De Muniz was unanimously elected by the other justices to head the Court. “I never envisioned myself as chief justice — I just feel privileged and humbled to be on the Court,” said De Muniz, who took over as chief justice in January.
“My life is a lot different now,” he said. “It is not unusual for me to make several public appearances in a week, sometimes in a day. I am the spokesperson for the Court. It is important to me that the judicial branch is perceived by the legislature and the public as good stewards of our resources and good producers of the work we are assigned. I also want to ensure the courts remain vital and responsive to society.
“Three things guide me as chief justice — managing resources prudently, upholding our commitment to judicial performance and accountability, and enhancing accessibility to justice,” De Muniz said.
Despite his hectic schedule, the new chief justice devotes much of his time to the College of Law. In addition to serving on the Law Board of Visitors, he also is an adjunct professor of law at the college. This spring he taught Oregon Criminal Procedure and Practice, a third-year course. “The class is a combination of practical skills and academics,” said De Muniz, who often holds class at the state Supreme Court. “Each week students are divided into prosecutors and defense attorneys. They file motions and argue cases. I ask questions of them just as if they were arguing a case in my courtroom.”
De Muniz said he remains closely connected to the college because he is grateful for his law school education — and because he wants to give back to the community. “I think practicing lawyers have a great deal to offer students, if they will give of their time,” De Muniz said. “Dealing with judges and lawyers should be part of law students’ education.”
He also wants to share his knowledge and experience with the next generation of Willamette lawyers. “When I decided to go to law school, I had no expectation whatsoever that I would ever be a courtroom lawyer, much less a judge,” he explained. “Law school taught me new things about myself. I realized I had a future in areas I hadn’t envisioned before. I learned how to analyze the law and to speak up. I learned the value of preparation in everything.”
Paul J. De Muniz JD’75
“Law school taught me new things about myself. I realized I had a future in areas I hadn’t envisioned before. I learned the value of preparation in everything.”