Barnes H. Ellis “The role of a lawyer is to be a good citizen”

Pushing Boulders Up Hills 

The Oregon Judicial Branch Commission was created in September 1979 to make a comprehensive study of the structure of the state’s judicial system.  Governor Vic Atiyeh, Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Arno Denecke, Senate President Jason Boe, and House Speaker Hardy Myers chose a committee that included Barnes and Judge Jack Beatty along with attorneys, legislators, and businessmen from around the state. Barnes was appointed to the commission by Governor Atiyeh and elected chair by its members. The commission looked at a range of different areas, and made two principal recommendations: first, integrate management of the court system under the leadership of the chief justice (rather than have an autonomous court in each of the 36 counties); and second, have the state assume responsibility for indigent defense (which the counties were having difficulty sustaining).  The bill passed both houses by comfortable margins. But there was a hitch regarding the appointment of the chief justice.  The commission suggested the governor appoint the chief justice, rather than the court which traditionally went  by seniority, because it seemed more likely to produce an able administrator. The senior justice at the time (a former state senator) successfully lobbied the Legislature to remove that provision and to the commission’s shock, in August 1981 Governor Atiyeh vetoed the entire package because of that one change.

Judge John C. Beatty (1919-2016) at 2010 annual meeting, receiving accolades for his contributions to Oregon’s legal history. Photo by Owen Schmidt

Judge Beatty then proposed that Governor Atiyeh call a special session and re-enact the bills, with the issue of how to choose a chief justice referred to the voters for a decision in May 1982. In what was referred to at the time (October 1981) as the shortest special session in the state’s history, the bills were re-enacted, and the governor signed.  (Oregon voters later decided to let the justices continue selecting the chief justice rather than the governor.)

In 1999, Chief Justice Wally Carson called on Barnes to chair a commission created by the Legislature to propose restructuring the state’s indigent defense program.  Others on this commission included Senator Kate Brown (future governor), Judge Dave Brewer from Lane County (later an Oregon Supreme Court Justice), the executive director of Lane County Public Defenders, a district attorney, and the executive director of the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.  Ann Christian, from the State Court Administrator’s Office, led the staff.  The commission recommended that a new Public Defense Services Commission be created by the Legislature, with its members to be appointed by the chief justice (who would also serve as a non-voting member).  The Legislature agreed, and Chief Justice Carson appointed Barnes as chair of PDSC.

Reappointed by successive Chief Justices Paul DeMuniz and Tom Balmer, Barnes chaired PDSC from 2001 until he stepped down in 2015.  Current State Court Administrator Nancy Cozine worked with Barnes for over six years when she was executive director of the Office of Public Defense Services. She recalls that Barnes inspired her and many others she worked with “to be better, work harder, and make sure that everything we did for our clients—whether it was the state or a corporation or an individual who was poor and helpless—to make sure that we provided representation and services as if our own lives were on the line.”  She also speaks with wonder about his level of energy and commitment, “from the 1960s all the way through, until 2015….look at all the boulders he was able to push up hills.”