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A bungled handoff.

Byline: The Register-Guard

Lyle Velure is in, and Rohn Roberts is out. So ends the attempt by Velure - apparent, if not in fact - to bequeath his Lane County Circuit Court judgeship to Eugene lawyer Roberts. That was no way to fill judicial vacancies, as Velure and Roberts belatedly realized.

The tangle arose when Velure, who had filed for re-election to the bench last December, informed Roberts that he intended to withdraw at the last minute. That allowed Roberts to file for the position before Tuesday's deadline, expecting that after Velure's withdrawal he'd be elected as the unopposed candidate on the May 16 ballot. Others who might have been interested in the position, not knowing what Roberts knew, stayed out of what looked like a race against an incumbent judge.

The arrangement looked like a plan to engineer a one-candidate race. If it didn't violate judicial ethics, it surely failed the smell test.

Objections would be filed with the state Commission on Judicial Fitness and Disability, but Velure invited anyone with concerns to talk to him first. The suggestion was an effective way of choking off complaints. Only the bravest or most foolish of lawyers would tell Velure they were unhappy with the Roberts handoff, knowing they'd be appearing in the judge's courtroom later this year, and in Roberts' courtroom the next. Braver or more foolish yet would be those who ignored Velure's summons and went straight to the commission.

Judges have two standard routes to retirement, neither of which involves handpicking a successor. Most retire before the end of their six-year terms, creating a vacancy that is filled by gubernatorial appointment. The appointed judge then runs for election as an incumbent, and almost invariably wins.

The judges' other option is to announce that they will not seek re-election, but will complete their terms. This option opens the door to candidates who compete for an open seat, with no incumbent in the race.

Wallace Carson, chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court, has chosen this route; three candidates - including Roberts' brother Jack - are running to replace him. Lane County Circuit Judge Bryan Hodges is also retiring at the end of his term; four candidates are competing for the open seat. Retiring judges may have a variety of reasons for completing their terms, and one of them is that they may believe the voters can make a better selection than the governor.

A transfer such as the one Velure and Roberts attempted belongs to a third category: A judge secretly anoints an heir, who inherits the position after it's too late for anyone to contest the will. It's surprising that Velure, who is a highly regarded jurist, and Roberts, who is the kind of lawyer people in trouble want on their side, would fail to see how their private understanding would affect public confidence in the judicial selection process.

On Thursday, after The Register-Guard's Bill Bishop reported the details of the plan, Velure and Roberts did what they could to unring the bell. Velure announced that his previous announcement was inoperative - he would stay in the race after all. Hours later, Roberts withdrew.

Once Velure decided to remain as a candidate, Roberts had no choice but to get out. If he stayed in the race and defeated Velure, people would have wondered whether the incumbent had thrown the contest. If he stayed in and lost, Roberts would have paid the price of a judicial campaign with nothing to show for it.

Roberts undoubtedly regrets the whole episode. Yet he should realize that it would have been even worse to begin a judicial career by having a judgeship handed to him like a family heirloom.

Velure, for his part, is now the only candidate for a position that all evidence suggests he does not want. It's likely that he will retire before the end of his six-year term, and Gov. Ted Kulongoski or his successor will appoint a replacement.

Everyone would both have been better off if Velure had followed Hodges' example and announced long before the filing deadline that he would retire at the end of the term, allowing Roberts and any others to compete on an equal footing.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Editorials; Velure should have followed Hodges' example
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Mar 10, 2006
Next Article:Prayers answered.

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