After more than 24 years, Judge Alta Brady has decided she would rather spend time traveling, reading and talking with family and friends than donning a black robe and presiding over Deschutes County’s court system.
The Deschutes County Circuit Court presiding judge will step down Dec. 31, a year before her final term would sunset.
Brady, 62, was appointed as judge in 1994 and became presiding judge in 2012. During her time, she has undoubtedly been impactful, pushing for the formation of a drug court and being a staunch lobbyist for more funding and resources for the court. But some have also criticized her policies as being less than efficient, saying she implemented policies that draw attention to the short-staffed court rather than trying to make the best hand with the cards she was dealt.
“I think the inefficiencies were in many ways designed to make the stats look worse,” said Tom Crabtree, partner at Crabtree & Rahmsdorff, a Bend law firm that contracts with the state for public defense work. “At least it appears to be the case. They certainly have the ability and time to do things more efficiently.”
In a resignation letter to Gov. Kate Brown, Brady notes that while staffing and the court budget have been frozen since 2009, the county population has boomed.
But data from the Deschutes County Bar Association shows that annual case numbers have steadily dropped since 2014. In 2014, there were 11,538 criminal cases and 7,629 civil cases. In 2016, criminal cases dropped to 9,311 and civil to 5,555. Through Sept. 30, there have been 7,475 criminal cases and 5,047 civil cases.
Looking back on her career, Brady acknowledged it has been a trying profession.
“It can be challenging; it can be stressful,” she said. “It’s certainly high-demand. The people who come before you, they don’t come to court because they are doing well in life.”
Brady’s crowning achievement was advocating drug court, where defendants charged with drug crimes can be sentenced to supervision and treatment rather than incarceration.
The program was implemented in 2006, and Brady said it has helped break the cycle of drug addiction within generations that can destroy a family.
Crabtree praised Brady’s role in the implementation of the program.
“That program has helped many, many people,” Crabtree said. “I think she deserves a lot of credit for that program.”
Crabtree has been a lawyer in Deschutes County since 1981, so he has observed Brady’s entire career. He said Brady was one of the first judges in the state to end the policy of shackling juvenile defendants. But he took issue with some of Brady’s policies.
One is moving from an individual docket, where a judge presides over the entirety of a case, to a master docket system. In the master system, judges are on a rotation of short hearings and trial work. Theoretically, a defendant could stand before all seven judges in the circuit during the adjudication of a case.
Brady said individual dockets require staffing the court can’t afford.
“There is an upside and a downside,” she said. “The upside is it takes less staff to maintain. The downside is you won’t necessarily have one judge on a particular case that hears all the issues on the case.”
Crabtree said he experiences the downside of a master docket on child dependency cases. When one judge hears everything about the case, they understand the circumstances better.
“They know what’s going on in that person’s life,” Crabtree said. “So they are much more likely to come up with a fair solution that takes into consideration everything that goes on in that person’s life.”
This can be an issue at sentencing, when a judge has to decide how much jail or prison time a defendant should get, but could very well have never worked on the case before.
Another side effect is often seen on smaller charges, when a defendant asks to plead guilty and be sentenced on the same day he or she is being arraigned. If the entire case belonged to one judge, that judge could take care of it all then. But with the master docket system, a defendant has to be arraigned and then moved into the plea docket, which could be backed up by months. Then, a separate hearing would have to be scheduled for sentencing. The result can be more time in jail as the defendant waits for a hearing.
“I would love to see what the bill to the taxpayers is for this,” Crabtree said. “The offer was credit for time served, but they end up spending an extra week in jail. An extra $700, and that’s not just one defendant a week. That might be 10 defendants a week just because of the inflexibility of the court.”
One of the most common gripes about Brady’s initiatives is about the ending of almost all settlement conferences, when both sides can discuss the case with a judge off the record and try to come to a resolution. When successful, settlement conferences eliminate hearings that would take up court time, staff hours and expenses for the prosecution and for the defendant.
Andrew Doyle, who has worked as a public defender at Crabtree & Rahmsdorff for four years, praised Brady for being fair and thoughtful. However, he said he would like settlement conferences to return.
“I know it takes time, but I think it’s a net gain when it’s all said and done,” Doyle said. “Sometimes, just putting both sides and the defendant in a room, it gets results.”
Brady said many cases settle on their own. She said when former Presiding Judge Mike Sullivan did settlement conferences, it made the attorneys complacent.
“He settled a lot of cases,” she said. “But I think that the attorneys came to rely on Judge Sullivan to settle their cases for them, and stepped back in taking an active role in settling the cases for their clients themselves.”
Crabtree suggested using the often-empty courtrooms for settlement conferences. Nearly every day, the court calendar shows one or two judges with nothing on their dockets. Brady said this could be because the judge is on vacation, but usually, it’s the result of a settlement in a case on the eve of a trial. She said it is a natural part of the criminal justice system.
“People don’t always stay till 5 p.m.,” he said. “Courtrooms are dark; hallways are dark. I would like to think that judges are back in their chambers working on opinions, but I don’t think that is always the case.
“And assuming they are there, those afternoons are times when other matters could be set, such as pleas and sentencings, or other short hearings so they didn’t have to be set out so far which is inconvenient to the clients and expensive to the taxpayers.”
From Sept. 6, 2016, to Feb. 28, 2017, there were at least 173 empty courtrooms on work days, when a judge on the trial docket had no hearings.
Brady said freed-up judges can’t be used for settlement conferences because it would be too hard to schedule them at the last minute. But Crabtree said his lawyers are at the courthouse every day, and the office is across the street.
“Judge Brady is correct: All the time, that wouldn’t work. But my attorneys beg to have settlement conferences and have even gone out of county to have settlement conferences in Lane County and Jefferson County,” Crabtree said. “They are willing to do anything for settlement conferences.”
While some attorneys might be critical of Brady’s policy decisions, Doyle said it is a tough job. It’s much easier to point the finger than step in and do the work, he said.
Doyle and Crabtree also praised Brady highly for her work as a trial judge, saying she is thoughtful, compassionate and always willing to listen and protect defendants’ rights.
“The process with her, I think it has been unflinchingly fair every time I have appeared in front of her,” Doyle said.
— Reporter: 541-383-0376, email@example.com