The race for Linn County Circuit Court Judge Position 1 features an appointed incumbent, Judge Fay Stetz-Waters, seeking election for the first time and facing longtime deputy district attorney Michael Wynhausen.
Both are stressing their experience.
Stetz-Waters, a Marine veteran, said she’s the best person for the job because, since last November, she’s already demonstrated the ability to handle a wide range of cases, including criminal, civil, family law, juvenile proceedings and other matters.
Wynhausen touts 22 years as a criminal prosecutor. “I have been a litigator, being in court virtually every day, trying hundreds of cases over my career,” he said. “By being in court and doing the work, you get a good handle on rules of evidence and rules of procedure.”
A lifetime of experience
Stetz-Waters said a judge's job is to remain neutral.
“I’ve demonstrated I can be impartial, that I’m not taking a side, that I’m looking into the facts and I’m making a decision based on that,” she said.
In September, Stetz-Waters won a judicial preference poll that asked local judges and attorneys to pick who they wanted to win the election.
Only about 40 percent of cases heard by judges in Linn County are criminal matters, and roughly 60 percent are civil cases, Stetz-Waters said.
As such, many people who come into her courtroom don’t have attorneys. She said one of the most critical and rewarding aspects of the job is explaining how the law works to people dealing with critical life events such as child custody issues. “They’re scared and you have to explain it in language they understand,” she said.
Stetz-Waters grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, joined the military out of high school and then worked as a police dispatcher for 12 years. She later worked as an administrative law judge for the Oregon Office of Administrative Hearings and as a hearings officer for the Oregon Board of Parole and Post-Prison Supervision.
She said handled thousands of important due process hearings even before becoming a judge. “I’ve been working as an independent decision maker since 2009,” Stetz-Waters added.
Stetz-Waters said she brings not only legal experience to the table, but life experience, as well.
“This is about temperament,” she said. “Experience and integrity matter.” And she added that Wynhausen doesn’t have the right temperament to serve as judge.
An experienced prosecutor
Wynhausen’s career includes stints as a prosecutor with Lane County, Union County, Benton County and he’s spent the last 13 years as a deputy district attorney for Linn County, where he’s lived for the last 20 years.
He has numerous endorsements from the local law enforcement community — and he hasn’t just helped local police by making sure criminals are tried in court.
Wynhausen recently was canvassing in Lebanon neighborhoods and helped the Linn County Sheriff’s Office apprehend a suspect fleeing from a deputy.
Members of the Linn County Board of Commissioners and other politicians also have endorsed him.
Wynhausen previously ran as a candidate for a Linn County judgeship in 2010, losing to Judge Thomas McHill. He also has filed unsuccessfully for a judge position five times.
“I have more litigation experience than anyone in either of the (judge) races,” he said.
“The bottom line is, Fay Stetz-Waters is woefully underqualified for this position,” he added.
Stetz-Waters only practiced law between 2007 and 2010, as she didn’t need to remain active with the bar to be an administrative law judge. He said the first criminal case Stetz-Waters handled came as a circuit court judge. She never had handled a trial of any sort, Wynhausen added.
“Her performance on the bench is consistent with her level of experience,” Wynhausen added.
He acknowledged that he’ll face a learning curve for civil cases.
Questions about appointment
Wynhausen also questioned the legality of Stetz-Waters' appointment, saying that she voluntarily went inactive in 2010, but was appointed as a circuit court judge before her license went active again. He said she wasn’t breaking any laws by acting as judge, however.
“She chose to do jobs that didn’t require her to keep an active license,” he said.
Stetz-Waters responded and said the state made a processing error with her paperwork, resulting in the curious timeline. A March letter from the Oregon State Bar confirms the administrative error and that Stetz-Waters was again active in early November 2017.
Wynhausen also said that Stetz-Waters was allowed to apply for the position after it officially closed.
“That is completely untrue, also,” Stetz-Waters responded.
Wynhausen said that he believes Stetz-Waters’ appointment is part of an effort by state government to push for judges that will give more lenient, probationary sentences.
“I’m going to be hard on the people who deserve to be treated in a harsh manner,” he said, adding that he’s looking for just results, not to hammer residents who may have committed a mistake out of character.
Stetz-Waters bristled at the idea that she was soft on crime, calling the notion “completely ridiculous.”
“I’m a crime victim myself. I know how important it is to have justice,” she said. “Who is the person who was let go that should have been incarcerated? Where have I been soft on crime?”
Both candidates have noted that Measure 11 and other Oregon laws often give judges little leeway in determining sentences. They’d like judges to have more discretion on the bench to review the circumstances of each crime, the background of each individual and other factors in determining a sentence.