Oregon Chief Justice Martha Walters to retire at year’s end

By ALEX BAUMHARDT – of the Oregon Capital Chronicle

The head of the Oregon Supreme Court announced Tuesday, Oct. 18, she’ll retire at the end of the year. 

Chief Justice Martha Walters, 72, has spent the last 16 years on the state’s highest court, and has been its leader for the last four. Walters is the first woman to serve as chief justice in Oregon. Her last day will be Dec. 31.

“She’s stepping down because she’s 72, stayed as chief justice longer than she planned to give stable leadership and now it’s time,” Todd Sprague, a spokesman for the Oregon Judicial Department, wrote in an email. 

In a statement, Walters said she felt grateful. 

“Grateful for the opportunities I have had to study and decide the law, and grateful for the opportunities I have had to advocate for our courts and the cause of justice they serve,” the statement said.

Walters will be replaced as chief justice by Justice Meagan Flynn, 55. Flynn was appointed to the Oregon Supreme Court by Gov. Kate Brown in 2017.

Walters praised her successor in her statement. 

“Justice Flynn will make an extraordinary chief justice, because she is open to all views, knows how to reach consensus, and wants to keep our courts responsive and accessible. Justice Flynn is deeply committed to equity and justice for all,” she said. 

Walters is the second member of the court to retire this year, after Justice Thomas Balmer, 70, told Gov. Kate Brown in a letter earlier this month that he would leave at the end of the year. 

Brown has appointed five of the Oregon Supreme Court’s seven justices, with the exception of Walters and Balmer. She is allowed to appoint replacements before the end of her term, who could serve until the general election in 2024 when they would need to run to retain the position.

Brown said in a statement that Walters has been a steadfast leader and advocate for justice in Oregon. 

“She has been collaborative and fearless in helping to seek solutions to some of the state’s most pressing and complex issues,” she said. 

Walters grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, earned a bachelor of arts from the University of Michigan and a law degree from the University of Oregon in 1977. 

She was appointed to the state’s Supreme Court in 2006 by former Gov. Ted Kulongoski, a Democrat. 

Prior to her appointment, she spent 30 years working for private firms in Eugene.

Some of her most famous cases during that time involved unlawful discrimination. Walters represented Oregon State University softball coach Vickie Dugan in her 1997 case against the university for wrongful termination after she complained of Title IX violations, including unequal pay with male peers. In 2001, Walters was among a team of lawyers that represented Oregon golfer Casey Martin in his suit against the PGA Tour for requiring players to walk during the tournament. Martin’s circulatory disorder prevented him from walking, and he successfully sued the league under the Americans with Disabilities Act for the right to use a golf cart during the tournament.

Walters is a member of Oregon Women Lawyers, a nonprofit professional association advocating for gender equity in the legal profession. She is also a member of the Southern District Lawyers Committee of the ACLU of Oregon and serves on the board of Direction Service, a Eugene-based nonprofit agency aiding people with disabilities. 

As chief justice, the Judicial Department said in a statement, Walters weathered several major storms, including the pandemic when she enacted Covid protocols and responded to Oregon’s public defense crisis. Hundreds of criminal cases in Oregon have been put on hold and dozens stuck in jail because the state lacks public defenders.

In recent months, Walters helped orchestrate the firing of Stephen Singer as executive director of the Office of Public Defense Services, which oversees indigent defense in Oregon. Singer was hired last November to fix Oregon’s public defender crisis. 

The chief justice appoints the members of the Public Defense Services Commission which oversees public defense services and the executive director. In August, following a clash with Singer, Walters urged the commission to fire him. When it didn’t, she dismissed its members and appointed new ones including some from the commission who opposed Singer. The new commission voted him out.

About a week ago, Singer filed suit in Multnomah County Circuit Court against the state of Oregon, claiming he was wrongfully fired for being a whistleblower. The suit claims $2.4 million in damages. The state has not filed an answer to the suit.