By Pat Korton
A Washington Post article on Monday, February 29 (“Meet the judge who honors Hitler, hates gays, has ‘pattern of dishonesty’”) was a cheap and gratuitous shot at Judge Vance Day, a circuit court judge in Salem, Oregon. Not one word in the headline describes him accurately except “judge.” He is a good and decent man whose reputation is under attack by political elites who cannot abide any hint of dissent regarding same-sex marriage.
The Oregon Judicial Fitness Commission staff asked the Commission to ratify 13 charges of misconduct against him. The complaint included charges ranging from trivial (giving his business card to a soccer referee) to absurd (planning to hang pictures of Presidents Reagan and Bush in his jury room). The staff’s real agenda was obvious: Count 12 declared that Judge Day committed misconduct by declining to perform same-sex marriages.
Circuit court judges in Oregon may perform weddings, but are not required to perform weddings. It is not part of the official duties of the office they hold. Any gay couple in Salem wishing to have a circuit judge marry them has an ample selection of judges perfectly willing to do so. None will be inconvenienced or impeded in any way because of Judge Day.
Judge Day is an evangelical Christian, and it would violate his deeply held religious views to officiate at a same-sex wedding. And so he asked his staff to refer same-sex couples to one of the other judges on the circuit. He made no statement on the subject, deliberately choosing not to make a public issue of it, but simply to obey his conscience. No same-sex couples ever sought his services, and ultimately he stopped presiding at weddings altogether. No harm, no foul, nor even a hint of prejudice against gays on his part.
But somehow, in the Commission’s peculiar view of things, this simple sidestepping of a morally problematic act for Judge Day became a “system of discrimination” and a capital crime of sorts in the world of Oregon judicial administration.
The most egregious charge is what the Post headline touts as “the judge who honors Hitler.”
Judge Day presided over Marion County’s first Veterans Treatment Court (VTC), a special court which deals exclusively with those who have served their country in the armed forces, but who have run afoul of the law after leaving the service. Wartime experiences sometimes lead to substance abuse and related problems, and are handled by the VTCs rather than the regular court system. VTC procedures are less formal and the effort to get the vet’s life back on track is a collaborative one, rather than an adversarial one. Judges and other officials may work with vets informally, outside the courtroom. If their work with the court is successful, charges are reduced or dropped, and the vets move on with their lives without the stain of a criminal record.
In order to communicate to the veterans that whatever may have brought them to court, their service to their country is appreciated, Judge Day worked with a local non-profit group to assemble displays for a “Hall of Heroes” gallery. Several of the framed displays included war memorabilia from a well-known local doctor, Major George Vollmar, who had served in World War II.
As the regimental surgeon, Vollmar set up an aid station for wounded soldiers in during the Allied invasion of Germany. He noticed a painting of Adolf Hitler hanging on the wall, and used his jump knife to cut it out of the frame and sent it back home as a souvenir. Vollmar’s family included the small painting with other war memorabilia for a collage of items designed as a testament to honor those who fought and died in the war to defeat Hitler.
You’d never know that background if you were relying only on official Judicial Fitness Commission documents, though. A news release about the complaint declared that Judge Day “violated the Oregon Code of Judicial Conduct . . . by hanging a picture of Hitler in the Marion County Courthouse,” a grotesquely incomplete and distorted description of the display. It is typical of commission texts clearly intended to prejudice the public impression of the charges against Judge Day.
As for the “war hero” whom the Post claims Judge Day “used … for errands,” the truth is that the VTC team of professionals made a group decision to engage the veteran often because of his being a high risk for self-harm during the holidays.
The man portrayed by the Post as a “horrendous soccer dad” is nothing of the sort. The soccer charges had been investigated by the commission three years ago and were dismissed. Somehow, they were brought back from the dead in the latest complaint.
Finally, the commission’s disregarded testimony by Judge Day and by other witnesses during two weeks of hearings to reach its conclusion of a “pattern of dishonesty.” Colleagues testified that he is a man “of great integrity” and “extremely honest.” A lesbian colleague testified that he is “a stand-up guy.” But the Commission turned a deaf ear.
In the end, the commission dismissed five of the thirteen counts in the complaint, including the charge that Judge Day’s plan to hang pictures of two U.S. presidents (Reagan and Bush) constituted impermissible partisan bias. Pursuing that charge might have been awkward, since the website of the Oregon Democratic Party proudly displays photos and biographies of two judges who sit on the commission passing judgment on Judge Day.
That’s the rest of the story.
–Pat Korton, Representative for Vance Day