HB 2451 will protect, to the greatest extent possible, the right of every Oregonian to have court cases decided by judges who are impartial. An impartial judge is a fundamental right that exists in almost every Oregon lawsuit. But the right to an impartial judge does not exist if it is impossible to find an impartial person who can serve as a judge. In those situations, the rule of necessity requires the case to be decided by a judge with a conflict of interest. This happens in income tax cases where every person is subject to the income tax laws.
PERS was created in 1945 and during its first thirty-eight years Oregon’s elected judges had their own independent retirement plan. When PERS cases were decided during that period, the judges were impartial. But in 1983 the legislature passed a law that made all elected Oregon judges PERS members. Thereafter, the justices of the Oregon Supreme Court have ruled multiple times that only judges who are PERS members can decide PERS cases. In doing so, the justices also made it clear that as far as they are concerned the right to impartial judges no longer exists in PERS cases.
The 1983 law that made all elected judges join PERS did not say that all PERS cases had to be decided by judges who were PERS members. It was the justices of the Supreme Court who came to that conclusion after they had become PERS members, and no one objected to those rulings. It is interesting to note that in 1983, eight-four of the ninety Oregon legislators were PERS members and the people who could have objected to those Supreme Court rulings, the Oregon Attorney General and the Department of Justice attorneys who tried the cases, were also PERS members.
PERS cases are very different from income tax cases. Less than nine percent of Oregonians are PERS members. While every elected judge after 1983 is a PERS member, there are over 11,000 persons serving as or who are eligible to serve as temporary judges. Temporary judges have the same power to decide lawsuits that elected judges have and it is certain that not all of those 11,000 attorneys are PERS members. Therefore, it is possible for PERS cases to be decided by judges who are not PERS members and the rule of necessity does not apply. HB 2451 will make sure that non-PERS judges will decide PERS cases.
But HB 2451 is not about PERS. It’s about the right of all people to fundamental fairness in lawsuits. The Oregon Supreme Court rulings that have allowed judges who are PERS members to decide PERS cases are not limited to PERS. Those rulings have told the Legislative Assembly that it has the power to give a special interest group, in this case PERS, the exclusive right to decide all lawsuits that it is involved in.
That is clearly wrong. No legislature can do that and I intended to do everything can to see that this gross injustice is ended. HB 2451 gives every Oregon legislator the opportunity to stand up for the fundamental rights of the people and to say that those rights have priority over every special interest group.
If you are concerned about this issue, bring HB 2451 to the attention of your legislators. Ask them where they stand on impartial judges for all Oregonians. If they oppose HB 2451, they are supporting the interests of special interest groups over the rights of all Oregonians.