The following is a Guest Editorial that I wrote which was published in the Oregonian on October 30, 2013.
PERS decisions undermined by conflicts of interest in Oregon courts: Guest opinion
Guest Columnist By Guest Columnist The Oregonian
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on October 30, 2013 at 4:30 AM, updated October 30, 2013 at 4:33 AM
By Daniel Re
The 2013 Oregon Legislature trimmed pension benefits by passing Senate Bill 822. In September, the Central Oregon Irrigation District (COID) intervened in the litigation in which PERS members are seeking to invalidate PERS reductions made by SB 822. COID also filed motions to disqualify the Oregon Supreme Court justices and the court-appointed special master.
Those motions were based on the fact that all of the justices and the special master are PERS members and their own PERS retirement benefit may be reduced if SB822 is upheld. That financial conflict of interest would disqualify them from participating in the case if judges who do not have a PERS conflict of interest can be appointed to take their places.
The Supreme Court gave all parties the right to file responses to the motions to disqualify and responses were filed by some PERS members, the City of Portland, the League of Oregon Cities and the State of Oregon. Each response argued that the justices and the special master should not be disqualified, despite their financial conflict of interest. It was appropriate for PERS members to file a response and it may have been appropriate for the City of Portland and the League of Oregon Cities to have done so.
But it was not appropriate for the State of Oregon.
The State’s role in this case is to defend SB822, but its response is inconsistent with that obligation. The State is represented by the attorney general and by numerous Oregon Department of Justice attorneys. All of the Department of Justice attorneys are PERS members and their personal retirement benefits are also at stake in the litigation. Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum is most likely a PERS member since she was an elected judge for over 22 years and all judges elected after 1983 became PERS members upon taking office.
Non-PERS members make up over 92 percent of Oregon’s population. Yet PERS members dominate every aspect of the SB822 lawsuit. The people who want SB822 thrown out are all PERS members. The justices of the Oregon Supreme Court are all PERS members. The special master is a PERS member. The attorneys representing the State in defending SB822 are all PERS members. The PERS retirement benefits of each one of those persons is at risk if SB822 is upheld.
I believe the Supreme Court justices, the special master and the Department of Justice attorneys will try their best not to be influenced by their PERS interest, but they will be influenced by it. That’s basic human nature and it’s why conflict of interest rules have existed for hundreds of years. The State’s response should not have been filed. It is not in the best interest of defending SB822. It’s in the best interest of the PERS members who want to invalidate it. In filing that response, the State has damaged the credibility of its efforts to defend SB822, and it needs to explain why.
Daniel Re is a Bend attorney. His law firm represent COID in general business matters, but Re says he is not personally involved in that representation and says his firm is not representing COID in the SB822 intervention or in the motions to disqualify the Supreme Court justices or the special master.