Editorials from around Oregon

January 17, 2018

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers:


The Eugene Register-Guard, Jan. 17, on marijuana and guns

Say what you will about U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, he may have succeeded in finding common ground for conservatives and liberals where others have failed.

Sessions announced earlier this month that he is rescinding the Obama administration’s policy on marijuana, which was to take a hands-off approach toward law enforcement in states that legalized it as long as they kept it out of the hands of children, criminal gangs and people living in other states where marijuana is not legal.

Federal officials are leaving how to enforce the new policy up to the U.S. attorneys for each state, offering only the vague guidance that the attorneys should follow “well-established” principles.

Oregon U.S. Attorney Billy Williams — who could be forgiven for occasionally rethinking his career choice these days — has claimed something of a middle ground. Williams says he will target those who are exporting marijuana from Oregon to other states that have not legalized it — a no-no even under the Obama policy — and criminal organizations.

But, while the dust was still settling on Sessions’ initial announcement of a change in federal marijuana policy, another issue involving marijuana popped up: guns.

What seems to have triggered this association was the decision by Pennsylvania to begin a medical marijuana program, with the first dispensary scheduled to open next month.

The president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association promptly said that federal law prohibits marijuana users from having guns or ammunition. “They’re going to have to make a choice. They can have their guns or their marijuana, but not both,” John T. Adams told The Associated Press.

Marijuana users who are also strong gun-rights supporters were simultaneously up in arms and puzzled. “I don’t know of any time anyone’s been using marijuana and committing acts of violence with a gun,” one Pennsylvanian said. “Most of the time they just sit on their couch and eat pizza.”

Sessions’ war on marijuana — a throwback to the days of “Reefer Madness!” — is in and of itself puzzling. Although more scientific research on marijuana is needed — federal laws currently restrict this — the opioid epidemic and related increase in heroin usage are of far greater concern nationally.

Also puzzling is the National Rifle Association’s silence on the subject of gun owners’ rights. This is an organization that has been unwilling to brook any discussion of laws aimed at decreasing mass shootings in the U.S. if they involved limitations on gun ownership.

If the NRA is willing to tacitly concede that it is all right to ban marijuana users from owning and bearing arms, then surely there is good cause to look into ways to restrict gun ownership among people who pose a far greater risk, such as those on no-fly lists or suffering from a severe mental illness that impairs their judgment. Tackling these issues would put Sessions squarely in line with the majority of Americans. Guns and drugs are two of the most controversial topics in America today. Sessions is doing nothing to work toward a sensible policy for either.


The Daily Astorian, Jan. 16, on Bundys belonging in federal prison for armed standoffs:

Dismissal of federal criminal charges against Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy will almost certainly result in more trouble. How well or poorly it ends will depend on whether the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. attorneys manage to learn from the shellacking they just received.

Most Americans have little sympathy for Bundy, his family and supporters. He might like to think of himself as a folk hero, but his hidebound refusal to abide by longstanding cattle-grazing rules placed innocent lives in danger, degraded public lands around his ranch and made a mockery of the law.

As one letter writer observed about the trial outcome, “I kind of thought things were pretty good in the old days when people were honest and did not pull high-powered weapons on law enforcement agents. Now they even get away with it.”

The Bundys clearly do not exist in the same U.S. West as the one portrayed on the TV Cartwright family’s Ponderosa. Its manly men supported law and order. By wantonly claiming public land is theirs to take, in the fictional universe of “Bonanza” the Bundys would only be good for an episode or two illustrating the many annoying downsides of having lousy neighbors.

However, even annoying anti-government bumpkins have a valid right to expect prosecutors to obey the rules of evidence. Judge Gloria Navarro was right to decide that by withholding evidence useful to the defense, prosecutors bungled their case beyond possibility of repair. It was so bad, the judge in effect awarded the game to the Bundys by default. This outcome should be a career-ending mistake for whomever was responsible in the U.S. Justice Department. Coupled with the earlier court loss in Oregon for the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, these prosecutors have shown they are the gang that can’t shoot straight.

This is most unfortunate. Emboldened by their twin victories, not only the Bundys but others who share their views will be emboldened. It is easily possible to imagine scenarios in which others will see fit to treat land that belongs to all Americans as private property, and then forcefully resist when the law comes to call. Such conflicts create great potential for injuries and deaths, like that of LaVoy Finicum during the Malheur standoff.

It doesn’t take a talented investigator to uncover plenty of resentment in the interior West toward the Bureau of Land Management. Although it has many dedicated and hard-working employees, its direction is whipsawed by political whims. It often is in the automatically unpopular role of mall cop or playground attendant as westerners recreate and go about their business out in our nation’s wide-open spaces. The key word is “our.” The lands that the Bundys and others covet belong to all of us, and are not to be fenced off or overgrazed. We citizens care less about the BLM’s popularity than about its continuing ability to do its job.

With erratic amateurs currently controlling the main levers of government power, it is up to the everyday professionals of the BLM and the Justice Department to get up in the mornings, and calmly go about their jobs in evenhanded and uninflammatory ways. They must figure out smarter strategies for getting along with skeptics while successfully discouraging and punishing lawbreakers. They must be the grown-ups in the room, and not stoop to shortcuts or prosecutorial skullduggery.

The Bundys will mess up again. The next time should be the last time, with federal prison being their next bunkhouse.


The Bend Bulletin, Jan. 16, on law change for Richardson:

Our Oregon, a group funded largely by public-employee unions, has sent Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson a clear message: We don’t like your plan to make it easier for Oregon voters to be heard.

Richardson had proposed new rules that would make it more straightforward to get initiative petitions on the ballot. Our Oregon filed a lawsuit to stop the rule change. And so Richardson has stopped his new rules from going into effect and asked the Oregon Legislature make it clear the rule change is legal by writing it into law.

It’s a good switch in tactics from Richardson to ensure his proposed changes withstand any legal challenge. But because the short, off-year legislative sessions were supposed to be for critical legislative matters, any change in the law should wait for the 2019 legislative session.

Richardson’s rule change affects when would-be petitioners can start gathering signatures to get an initiative on the ballot. The way it works now is people can submit a proposed ballot measure to the Secretary of State’s Office. But before they can gather the needed signatures to actually put the initiative on the ballot, the state attorney general must write a ballot title, a summary of what a “yes” and “no” vote would do and a longer summary about the initiative. Voters get the final say on any initiative at the ballot box.

Groups that want to slow or stifle an initiative can challenge the language used by the attorney general. Petitioners can’t start gathering signatures to even get a chance to put an initiative on the ballot until after those legal challenges are resolved. Richardson’s rule change would allow petition gatherers to start gathering signatures even if challenges to the attorney general’s language were still in court. Voters still get the final say on voting an initiative up or down.

It’s understandable why Our Oregon, supported in part by unions, doesn’t want Richardson’s change in rules. Ballot measures have been used in the past to put limits on state taxes, which indirectly limit the number of public employees and their pay.

A Legislature controlled by Democrats seems unlikely to be eager to comply with Richardson’s request to change the rules, because unions are an important constituent. But legislators are elected to serve the entire state. They should make the change to ensure it’s easier for Oregonians to be heard.


Corvallis Gazette-Times, Jan. 15, on unanimous jury ballot measure having merit:

The Oregon District Attorneys Association last week announced plans to lead a ballot campaign to abolish the state’s unusual practice of allowing nonunanimous juries to decide some felony cases.

The move is long overdue, and the association’s action is welcome. And, on a day when we celebrate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., it’s worth remembering that Oregon’s embrace of nonunanimous juries has a historical precedent that’s based in racist and anti-Semitic beliefs.

In Oregon, a jury’s 10-2 vote is sufficient to convict in most felony cases, although a conviction for murder or aggravated murder still requires a unanimous verdict. Oregon and Louisiana are the only two states that allow nonunanimous verdicts. Federal courts require unanimous verdicts.

This nonunanimous rule hasn’t always been the case in Oregon, but in 1934, the state amended its constitution to allow juries to decide most felony cases on a 10-2 vote. Legal scholars (most notably, Aliza Kaplan of Lewis & Clark Law School, who wrote an influential piece on this topic) point to a sensational Columbia County murder case with gang overtones that paved the way for the ill-considered amendment.

That 1933 case involved a Jewish suspect, Jake Silverman, on trial for murder. One juror held out against conviction on the murder charge, and the jury eventually reached a compromise guilty verdict on a lesser charge of manslaughter. A judge sentenced Silverman to three years in prison.

The backlash was considerable. The Morning Oregonian, for example, railed against the verdict on its editorial pages, in language that was — well, not even borderline racist, but you can be the judge. Consider this excerpt from a November 1933 editorial: “This newspaper’s opinion is that the increased urbanization of American life ... and the vast immigration into America from southern and eastern Europe, of people untrained in the jury system, have combined to make the jury of twelve increasingly unwieldy and unsatisfactory.” The newspaper previously had editorialized against so-called “mixed-blood” jurors.

The Legislature, then as now deeply in tune with editorial-page opinions (but, more likely, responding to public sentiment), voted to place a constitutional amendment on the May 1934 ballot to allow nonunanimous juries. The measure drew no organized opposition and was approved by 58 percent of voters.

And that’s where matters have stood for more than 80 years in Oregon. There are no records of how many felony cases end in nonunanimous verdicts, but a recent Oregonian story pointed to a 2009 study that found that more than 40 percent of 662 convictions surveyed in 2007 and 2008 were nonunanimous.

Legal scholars have argued over the years that part of the reason why Oregon adopted nonunanimous verdicts in the first place was to squelch the voices of minority jurors. Certainly, the historic record suggests that was the intent, although there is some disagreement among prosecutors as to whether that’s actually how matters have played out in Oregon jury rooms; Benton County District Attorney John Haroldson, for one, doesn’t necessarily buy into the argument that nonunanimous juries have harmed minorities.

But Haroldson does support the move toward unanimous juries: “The unanimous jury system allows for all voices in the jury to be heard, and that’s critical to a just and transparent criminal justice system,” he said.

Still, some observers were surprised that an association of state prosecutors was planning to push the ballot measure for unanimous juries; such a move could well increase the number of hung juries.

But Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill, who backs the move, was clear: “We stand emphatic and firm in our shared belief that racism, bias, prejudice and discrimination simply cannot play a role in a criminal justice system,” he told The Oregonian.

And speaking of The Oregonian: The paper’s opinion page last year recanted its editorial stance from 1933. It’s time for the rest of Oregon to follow suit.


The Oregonian/OregonLive, Jan. 14, on ethics mattering to the people of Oregon:

Ethics commissioners who reviewed the investigation into how Cylvia Hayes profited by braiding together her work as a private businesswoman and public official described what they found in direct and compelling words:

Profoundly disturbing. Crushing and disappointing. The worst of politics. A case study in what you are not supposed to do in public office.

Even more powerful was where Oregon Government Ethics Commission Chairwoman Alison Kean laid blame: “I want to make it really clear that I don’t think this is all on one person,” she said. “We may just have so much evidence on Ms. Hayes that it’s a little easier, but I think also this report is full of evidence that is applicable to the member of her household who was a public official and was the governor.”

After three years, we finally have the answers to the important questions about the abuse of public office that local media had been asking before John Kitzhaber was elected to his historic, if ever so short, fourth term. They were the right questions.

They were questions that weren’t always welcome in a state infatuated with its cowboy governor. Or in a state where one party has ruled lately and often seems comfortable sticking with the devil they know.

These were basic questions that the pair never asked of themselves. Maybe it was Kitzhaber’s hubris. Or Hayes’ blind ambition. But when the governor’s staff raised these issues, they were shot down by the chief executive of the state.

In his February 2015 resignation letter, Kitzhaber wrote that he was confident he hadn’t broken any laws. He wrote that “Oregonians will see that I have never put anything before my love for and commitment to Oregon and faithfully fulfilling the responsibilities of the public offices I have held.”

But he did, whether he’ll ever truly recognize that or not.

Kitzhaber compounded those violations of our collective trust when he and Hayes defiantly dismissed news stories and fought public records requests, both through stalled processes and in court. (Hayes is currently appealing the $124,837 judgment she still owes The Oregonian/OregonLive after losing her battle to keep her state-related emails private.)

Kitzhaber and Hayes attacked The Oregonian/OregonLive and other Portland media, claiming reports were inaccurate and vilifying reporters -- long before it was commonplace to label inconvenient facts as fake news.

The commission’s report drowns out that wrongheaded drumbeat.

In its 154 unyielding pages, the report confirms the allegations raised in various news reports. There was no line between Hayes’ private business and her public work. She earned generous contracts thanks to her title and her access to Oregon’s highest political official. It was Kitzhaber who put her in that position and, at various points, pushed his staff to help expand her role and reach.

Ethics Commissioner Richard Burke hit on one of the more critical points as he and other commissioners deliberated at a meeting last week: Kitzhaber and Hayes should have known better.

Burke pointed out that the commission sometimes handles conflict-of-interest violations by volunteer appointees and office-holders in small towns across the state. That wasn’t the case with Kitzhaber and his top advisers.

“These are sophisticated people,” Burke accurately described. “These are people who are capable of swimming in the shark tank. They are very, very sharp. They understand how government is supposed to work.”

As commissioners discussed, Kitzhaber and his staff identified the potential for ethical lapses and conflicts of interest at several points over the years but never sought guidance from the very agency created to help public officials navigate those waters.

For Oregon, there couldn’t be a better time for such a confirmation of the need for a strong, vibrant local press and increasingly aggressive watchdog agencies such as the Government Ethics Commission. Without those questions and pressure to produce public documents, the first couple likely would have pushed on with their ambitious plans, which called for further expansions of Hayes’ roles and responsibilities. Without this ruling, Kitzhaber and Hayes could have continued on with their misplaced criticisms and disingenuous narrative.

The ethics commission cemented its credibility late last year when it rejected a pathetic settlement with Kitzhaber that provided a mealy admission of guilt and a $1,000 fine. In coming months, commission members will revisit his case and decide whether to fine Hayes the maximum of $5,000 for each of her 22 various violations of state ethics and conflict of interest laws - a potential hit to her bank account of $110,000.

Oregon will be watching. This is the time to send a clear signal that we value integrity in our government and that ethics mean something in this state.

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