NEWPORT — Judge Thomas O. Branford will retire at the end of February after 32 years on the bench in Lincoln County, during which the state’s court system underwent dramatic modernization and consolidation.
Branford’s first seven years in the robe were as district judge — he was made a circuit judge when the legislature abolished the district courts in 1996. Voters have sent him back to the bench five times since he was first elected in 1988 to take office in January 1989. He was last re-elected in 2018, and though his term does not expire until 2024, he would have been required to retire by Dec. 31 of this year. The Oregon Constitution requires judges to retire from judicial office at the end of the calendar year in which they turn 75.
In a Jan. 6 letter to Gov. Kate Brown, the presiding judge of Lincoln County Circuit Court wrote two short paragraphs. He informed the governor of his retirement effective Feb. 28, and he reflected on the “incredible honor to serve” with a reference to the retirement speech of baseball great Lou Gehrig, who announced on July 4, 1939, that he was leaving the Yankees and the sport due to the progression of the disease that now bears his name.
“In his retirement speech, (Gehrig) said, ‘ … I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth.’ I mimic Lou,” Branford wrote.
The state’s courts were consolidated under the Oregon Judicial Department in 1981, and during his tenure, Branford said, the court system underwent steady administrative growth in an effort to effect the more efficient and even application of justice across jurisdictions.
“There’s been a huge emphasis on the part of the courts to become more efficient in handling cases,” Branford told the News-Times. “It’s been significantly streamlined and upgraded in the time that I’ve been a judge. Uniform sentencing guidelines, uniform child support calculator, there’s been a lot of attempt to minimize variations from one court to another to ensure that justice is similarly handled throughout the state.”
A big piece of that consolidation was the 2014 implementation of its Odyssey software. “It represents a huge organizational change, in that every case that’s filed in the state is visible from every other court,” Branford said. “It also enables the state to have significant oversight over the volume of cases, who’s doing how much work, how long the cases take to get resolved, so there’s been a number of huge changes with Odyssey.”
He’s also seen the introduction and growth of diversionary courts in Lincoln County, first with the creation of the drug court in 2006, for which Branford served as judge from 2008 to 2015 and again from 2018 to 2020, followed by the HOPE court for property crime offenders in 2009. In 2010, Judge Sheryl Bachart started a domestic violence court, which has a diversionary component, and Judge Pro Tem Amanda Benjamin began holding a mental health court in early 2020.
“All of those things have proven to be very effective in helping people through difficult circumstance in a new way, and I’ve been very supportive of all of those courts,” Branford said.
Branford has been presiding judge for eight years and said his approach has been to maintain time-tested practices and take heed when advised about what works and doesn’t. “We worked collaboratively for a long time to come up with how we do things, and I think it’s been successful,” he said, giving much of the credit to court staff. “All of the judges are the lucky beneficiaries of the people we work with.”
Branford said one of his favorite parts of being a judge was the opportunity to find the fairest application of the law for each circumstance. “I love being able to try to get to the right answer in each case. People are different, circumstances are different, and I like the flexibility of being able to listen and then make up my mind to do what’s right for the people involved,” he said. “That’s been a great luxury, if you will, to be able stand for the law, for ethics, for personal decency. Ultimately we’re here to help the community and protect people.
“The law is what it is, but there are so many different circumstances that go into similarly charged cases that it’s important to not just have the same answer. It shouldn’t be that mechanical,” Branford said. “In criminal cases, the Oregon Constitution, Article I, Section 15, talks about the protection of the public, number one, as the foundation of Oregon’s criminal laws, then individual accountability, personal responsibility and reformation — and they’re all important.”
Attorney Guy Greco has defended clients before Branford since 1989, and he faced him as opposing counsel when the judge was still a practicing attorney. “His temperament was superb, always even-keeled, always trying to be fair to both sides. He was always extremely courteous to both sides,” Greco said. “He would be upset if a lawyer got obstreperous in the courtroom or was cutting off another lawyer. If a lawyer was being rude, he would step in and point that out and ask for calm.
“He could be strict if he believed that the offender deserved punishment, but he was guided by a philosophy that his role was to protect the public,” Greco added, echoing the judge’s own comments. “And he was always open to suggestions about how to make the system work better.”
Bachart told the News-Times she could not speak highly enough her colleague on the Lincoln County bench. “He has been a mentor and a true friend, and I will miss him personally and professionally,” Bachart said. “I probably know him better than most, and what I have witnessed over the years is just how deeply he cares about the work. He has dedicated so much of his life to this job, spending countless hours on the weekends and evenings here. He did so because he knew his decisions were important and were going to have a real effect on those appearing before him. I don’t think you will find a more dedicated public servant anywhere.”
Bachart is now the senior judge in Lincoln County, with Judge Marcia Buckley having just been elected and sworn in after serving a year under appointment by the governor. Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters will appoint the next presiding judge, and Gov. Brown’s office is now taking applications to fill Branford’s seat until the next general election. The application deadline is 5 p.m. Feb. 21.