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May Primary

In the May 19 Primary Election, Columbia County voters will cast their ballots for Columbia County Circuit Court, District 19, Position 3. The Chief reached out to the three candidates with three specific questions.

Jenefer Grant, incumbent

The Chief: What skills do you offer as a circuit court judge?

Jenefer Grant: After more than twelve years on the bench, my judicial skills are well developed. I have become adept at managing jury trials, and have the clear presence of mind needed to avoid mistrials and the expense of retrial. This requires confidence, familiarity with the rules of evidence and jury instructions, good time management, and making sure jurors are able to see and hear the proceedings, among other skills.

One of the most important and challenging aspects of my work is handling juvenile dependency cases. In these situations, children are in the temporary custody of the state, either placed in foster care or with a parent under a safety plan. These cases involve multiple parties and their attorneys, and are governed by complex state and federal law. The decisions I make in juvenile court cases affect entire families, sometimes for generations. Understanding how to work with the various community partners to make and implement a supportive plan for these families is a skill I have developed over nearly 25 years, first as an attorney representing children and parents in dependency cases, and continuously, since I became a judge in 2007.

Also very important in our court is the ability to help litigants resolve their disputes without the stress and expense of contested hearings and trials. Our busy docket could not accommodate every case going to trial, so it is essential to help parties settle as many cases as possible. This is particularly important in family law matters and criminal trials, as it can be devastating for a child or victim to testify against family members. In these instances, I work to help all parties engineer just and equitable outcomes without contested trials. This requires excellent listening skills, a very good understanding of the legal framework in domestic relations and criminal law, and the ability to suggest solutions both sides can see as beneficial. I am proud of my reputation as a good settlement judge.

Another important skill is a familiarity with the social services available both locally and in surrounding areas. Referrals to appropriate agencies are often necessary for people with mental health challenges, addictions, violent behavior, parenting deficits, and other problems which bring them to court. The availability of these services changes constantly and having a good grasp of them helps me respond more effectively in the courtroom.

In a relatively small county like ours, judges have to be generalists capable of handling all types of legal disputes and it’s essential to be intellectually nimble. I still encounter legal questions I have not seen before, and knowing how to research and analyze them efficiently is part of effective judging.

The Chief: What do you see as the main challenge you would face as a judge?

Grant: The biggest challenge currently is, and will continue to be, providing prompt and fair resolutions to people’s cases with limited court resources. The financial impact of the pandemic is likely to further restrict our funding, so we will need to be even more creative regarding how to help people access court services and conclude their legal matters. I will continue to work diligently by hearing matters in court, conducting case management and settlement conferences in chambers, and processing written motions and requests. I am also on a statewide committee, to which I was appointed by Chief Justice Martha Walters, working to improve our service to self represented litigants in family law cases. Only around 20% of people filing divorce or child custody cases are now able to afford lawyers.

The Chief: What rewards would you take away from this position?

Grant: The rewards of this position have been enormous. More than anything, I like to solve problems and help people. This position has enabled me to do that important work every day. I have been a part of the community here for almost a quarter century, and the opportunity to make people’s lives here better has been the most fulfilling career I can imagine. I am very grateful for having been able to serve the people of Columbia County.

Michael Clarke

The Chief: What skills do you offer as a circuit court judge?

Michael Clarke: As a lawyer, I’m trained and experienced to analyze the law and apply it to the facts in a way that’s best for my client. A judge uses similar skills, but is impartial and listens to the parties, asks questions, and makes a decision that ensures the law is applied to the facts appropriately. Beyond a lawyer’s skillset, the biggest skill a judge must have is the ability to listen with a loving heart and an open mind to the unique problems people have. This ability creates a connection to allow the judge to truly understand a person’s problems and ultimately help resolve the problems.

I am a great listener, open minded, and always willing to learn from people and their experiences. I can relate to all walks of life and compassionately consider the problems each person faces. I have proven these skills as evidenced by my success in my business. The State does not give me clients or pay my rent. I have to attract, retain, and keep clients happy to bring in more clients and earn the money to pay my rent, my employees, and contribute to our economy. As an attorney in private practice, I have only my people skills, problem solving skills, and my name in the community to earn a living and raise my family. Without my ability to talk with, relate to, understand, and communicate with everyday people, I would have been out of business years ago.

The Chief: What do you see as the main challenge you would face as a judge?

Clarke: I expect every day as a judge will be a challenge. But with experience, the challenges will become less difficult to overcome. Every judge starts at the bottom. Judge Grant came from a background of criminal defense for state provided clients, but can competently make decisions in civil matters. Judge Callahan came from a background in civil matters, but competently makes decisions in criminal cases. I will follow the same path as all our judges in this county. I’ll learn what I need to know and rely upon my 15 years legal experience in the law. I feel lucky that I have been able to work in most areas of the law; my experience will be a practical asset to rely upon while learning to become the best judge I can be for this county.

I know that even after years of experience on the bench there will be challenges that arise, but I also know there will be help along the way. I have good relationships with current and retired judges in our county. Judge Grove is a wealth of information and I look forward to working with him and Judge Callahan to provide the best judicial services in the state for the people of our county.

The Chief: What rewards would you take away from this position?

Clarke: I am expecting this position to be exciting, exhilarating, terrifying, and satisfying. This is how private practice has been for me, and I wouldn’t expect anything less from the job of being judge. The difference is that a judge has a direct and immediate impact on people. Every day a judge’s interactions with people affect so many lives. I am looking forward to that daily interaction where I really can improve someone’s life, or at least put them on a path that will improve lives.

The title “judge” yields tremendous power and an automatic voice in our county. I believe this voice should be used to improve the judiciary and its role in helping the people of our community. My goal is a career where I can point to an improved judicial system that helps more people of this county through increased efficiencies and better accessibility. My goal is to create a long lasting benefit to our community where I can be proud to have helped make the changes this community needs.

James D. Huffman

The Chief did not receive any responses from Huffman before press time, despite numerous contact attempts. Below is information from the Columbia County Voter’s Pamphlet.

James D. Huffman was a Deputy District Attorney in Columbia County from 1976-1980. He has been an attorney in private practice in St. Helens from 1980 to the present day. He received a B.S. in Business-Finance from Portland State University in 1970 and a J.D. from the Northwestern School of Law, Lewis and Clark College in 1975. He served two years as Research Editor for the Lewis and Clark Environmental Law Review.

Huffman also has prior governmental experience, first serving as a student intern for Clackamas County District Attorney in 1974. He then served as Deputy District Attorney for the Columbia County District Attorney from 1976 – 1980. He was the Chairman and Board Member of the Scappoose Park and Recreation District in the 1980s and 1990s. He served as a city councilor for the city of Scappoose for four years in the late 1990s. He was a member of the Law Enforcement Advisory Committee of the St. Helens School District.

“I moved to Scappoose on July 4, 1976, with my wife Marilyn and raised three children here. All three are now in professional careers. Marilyn made a career in Scappoose as a grade school teacher,” Huffman said.

Huffman also wrote that he has written successful initiative petitions to benefit Columbia County citizens, such as the Scappoose Pool measure.

“I chose law as a career to fight for justice. As an attorney in private practice, I have been a prodigious volunteer for indigent legal aid clientele and was one of the founding lawyers of Columbia County Legal Aid, which is still in operation. I looked forward to jury trials, and learned much from them in 44 years of trial work, both as a prosecutor and defense attorney. I have seen many judges come and go and know a good one from a bad one. I want to assure every litigant that above all, I will apply the law fairly to both sides of every case, and will apply common sense rather than legal technicalities to all decisions I will make as a judge.”

Follow election results at the Columbia County Elections website and read reaction at thechiefnews.com and in the Friday print editions of The Chief.

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