Judge John Wolf is running for re-election as a circuit court judge in the 7th District of Oregon, which covers the five counties of Hood River, Wasco, Sherman, Wheeler, and Gilliam. Of those five counties, Hood River and Wasco counties make up the vast majority of the population as well as the vast majority of the business within the court system that goes on in this district. Unfortunately, for the last eleven years, one of the judges has been unable to be involved with a substantial amount of this legal business because of a longstanding conflict of interests that has taken place because his wife was the ADA for Wasco County. The existence of a scandal involving said wife, who has now moved to become the ADA for Hood River county, has led Judge Wolf to recuse himself from all criminal cases in both Wasco and Hood River counties, making it impossible for him to participate in a large majority of the criminal caseload that takes place in the district where he is a judge and is seeking re-election, while the only judge who could hear criminal cases in Wasco county is retiring, with people wondering what will happen now.
Let us imagine that you have been charged with a crime in The Dalles in the last ten years or so, and the crime was investigated by former Dalles police officer Jeff Kienlen, who of course testifies against you. Then let us suppose (as it is not difficult to imagine), that this case was prosecuted by one Leslie Wolf, who until last year was an Assistant District Attorney for Wasco County, all the while her husband John Wolf was a district court judge. Would there not be a reasonable case for making an appeal that there was bias against you when said police officer has a personal relationship with the ADA, who herself is married to a judge in the same county, and even was dishonest about spending the night with her in a hotel room in Salem, something which led him to be demoted from sergeant. If you were a defendant, do you not think it would at least help your case to know that the apparatus of state was stacked against you in that the police department, district attorney’s office, and judges were literally in bed with each other?
Perhaps saying this so baldly strikes one as unnecessarily cynical. We are used to believing that our institutions have an incestuous relationship with each other, in that we expect certain people to receive favorable treatment because of their political connections that other people do not enjoy. Our society, though, pays lip service to the idea that justice is blind, and threats to the legitimacy of the legal system are taken seriously enough that there are a lot of rules that are in place for lawyers that push them to disclose information that may impeach their credibility. The idea that judge, prosecutor, and police could be in cahoots with each other would make it impossible for a defense attorney or a defendant who had run afoul of all three to think that they could possibly receive a fair hearing. It is little wonder in this circumstance that Judge Wolf is unable at present to hear any cases involving either The Dalles police department or the Wasco county district attorney’s office, which drastically lowers his efficacy as a judge and allows him to take a relaxed attitude to the civil cases that fill up his docket.
Meanwhile, the disastrous situation his wife and their mutual friend in the police department left behind have left outside attorneys pouring through hundreds of cases to see the extent to which the disgraced former police officer may have participated in cases of overcharging where a knowledge of the truth may have mitigated convictions or at least allowed for the presence of reasonable doubt. That this is a disaster is pretty clear–trust in our legal system requires us to be able to have standards that allow for at least some modicum of justice and equity in how we are tried for cases, and the refusal to reveal information that might demonstrate bias tilts the scales of justice away from those ordinary people who find themselves in the crosshairs of the justice system. And it is not only career criminals who need to be concerned about too close and too cozy of a relationship of the institutions of law and order that makes it more difficult to escape from their clutches if they decide to take an interest in you.