One of the major changes to the Oregon state court system occurred in 1981, although much of it was largely invisible to the public. Legislation enacted that year ended county funding of trial court operations (both circuit court and district court), replacing it with state funding. Legislation also centralized the administration of the Judicial Department in the hands of the Chief Justice of the Oregon Supreme Court.
Prior to 1981, the trial court system in Oregon had suffered from two major problems. The first related to funding. Although trial court judges were state employees, the trial courts themselves were essentially a part of county government. Counties provided the courthouses, the court staff, and the most of the cost of court operations.1 The dependence of trial courts on county funding meant that court finances varied greatly from county to county; "[t]he levels of [financial] support are uneven and often unpredictable."2Furthermore, court costs were increasing rapidly, placing a heavy burden on county budgets.3
The second major problem afflicting the trial court system prior to 1981 was inadequate judicial administration, which affected all levels of control. First, the trial court judges often had limited control over their own staff, because the staff was employed by the county.4Second, the presiding judge of the county was often chosen for reasons that had nothing to do with administrative ability (for example, the presiding judge might be assigned based on seniority, or might be rotated automatically among all the trial court judges).5 Third, although the Oregon Supreme Court had been given general administrative authority over the trial courts, it lacked needed powers or the necessary administrative staff to do so effectively.6 The result was that the Judicial Department, as a whole, had "little administrative cohesion and less administrative accountability" than either the Executive or the Legislative Departments.7
Pressure for reform had begun building in the late 1970s.8 When it became clear that 1979 proposed reform legislation would die in committee, the Legislature created a Commission on the Judicial Branch, to study the existing judicial problems and make recommendations.9 The Commission issued its report in early 1981, and the Legislature enacted a majority of the Commission's recommendations in a 1981 special session.
One act made the state the source of funding generally for all trial court operations.10 The Chief Justice was charged with developing a personnel plan, a budgeting plan, and a property management plan for the courts of the state.11 With limited exceptions, all court employees would become state employees under the personnel system created and administered by the Chief Justice.12 Counties would remain responsible for providing courthouse facilities, however.13
A second act gave the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court significantly more authority to function as head of the Oregon Judicial Department.14 Among other provisions, the legislation amended the statute giving the Supreme Court general administrative authority over the courts of the state to make the Chief Justice the administrative head of the Judicial Department.15 The Chief Justice was given the authority to appoint the presiding judges of the trial courts, as well as the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals.16 That appointment power was intended to insure that presiding judges were chosen for their administrative ability, and to make the presiding judges directly responsible to the Chief Justice.17
One major proposed reform failed, however. The Commission on the Judicial Branch had proposed that the Chief Justice should be selected by the Governor, rather than elected by the justices of the Supreme Court.18 The Legislature referred the matter to the voters.19 On May 18, 1982, the voters defeated the legislation by a large margin.20
The 1981 legislation regarding state funding generally did not become effective until January 1, 1983, to allow time to smooth the transition to state control.21 Chief Justice Berkeley Lent initially shepherded the Judicial Department through the transition and became the first Chief Justice to exercise the expanded powers of the office.22 After Justice Lent stepped down as Chief Justice in the summer of 1983, Justice Edwin J. Peterson became the Chief Justice, and assumed the difficult duties associated with the newly-expanded office.23