Lincoln County Circuit Court has hired a new full-time referee following his appointment as a judge pro-tem by the Oregon Supreme Court. His wife, now an appointed circuit court judge, previously held the position.

Pro tem judges are lawyers appointed by the state supreme court to work at various levels of the judiciary to handle some of the case load — sometimes they are already-seated judges who are assigned to a different jurisdiction to meet a judicial need. Some work though contracts with the Oregon Judicial Department as a kind of auxiliary judge within a circuit court, and Lincoln County’s is one of the few courts with a full-time hearings referee.

Judge Amanda Benjamin, who was appointed by Gov. Kate Brown to fill the Lincoln County Circuit Court seat vacated with the February retirement of presiding Judge Thomas Branford, had served as the county court’s paid pro-tem judge and hearings referee for the previous two years.

During that time, Benjamin sought election to another vacant seat on the bench, formerly held by the late Judge Paulette Sanders, and she enjoyed enthusiastic backing from Branford and now-presiding Judge Sheryl Bachart. Benjamin lost that election to Judge Marcia Buckley, who was already seated as an appointed replacement for Sanders.

Benajmin’s May appointment to the bench until next year’s election left open a heavily relied upon position. In addition to hearing criminal and civil cases, Benjamin spearheaded the county’s mental health court during her first year as pro tem.

Bachart confirmed via email Monday that Benjamin’s husband, Newport attorney Joseph Allison, was hired as the full-time hearings referee for Lincoln County Circuit Court.

Bachart said the open position was posted and shared with the county bar association and after several weeks garnered three applicants, one of whom did not meet the basic qualifications. Judge Marcia Buckley, Bachart, the county trial court administrator, and two court representatives from outside the county interviewed Allison and another candidate.

Following the interviews, Allison was offered the job contingent on his successful application to the supreme court for appointment as a judge pro tem. To qualify, lawyers must be residents of Oregon and members in good standing of the state bar association for at least the previous three years.

Along with an application, candidates must submit a letter from the presiding judge stating the judge’s position on the application’s approval, as well as undergo screening by the local judicial screening committee.

“Mr. Allison was recommended for approval by the local judicial screening committee (made up of five experienced attorneys from various legal disciplines in our community). I also recommended his approval,” Bachart wrote in an email to the News-Times.

The supreme court then held a public meeting to discuss the application and appointed Allison a pro tem judge.

Bachart said his appointment was effective Sept. 20, and he will handle both criminal and civil matters. “Having a pro-tem judge in addition to the three circuit court judges in our jurisdiction is a tremendous resource, and my goal is for him to be able to hear a variety of types of cases,” Bachart wrote.

Some members of the local bar (who did not want to be named criticizing judges in whose courtrooms they practice) contacted the News-Times and expressed concern about a potential appearance of favoritism with the hire.

One attorney said, “It is disappointing that yet another person with negligible experience in criminal defense has been appointed to judicial office.”

Bachart said the recruitment was a fair and transparent process that adhered to the judicial department’s personnel rules and did not involve Benjamin at any stage. Bachart said she was surprised there were so few applicants for the position.

“As presiding judge, my only interest is in doing what is best for our courts,” Bachart wrote. “Judge Allison is highly qualified for the position, has experience in both civil and criminal cases, and is a wonderful addition to our bench. If the recruitment did not produce qualified candidates, it would have been a failed recruitment, and I would have reposted the position.” The presiding judge is Allison’s supervisor, and Benjamin has no supervisory authority over him, Bachart said.

Allison was admitted to the Oregon bar in 2013 and has served as a Lincoln County deputy district attorney and assistant city attorney in Albany. He’s also been in private practice in southern Oregon and in Kentucky, where he was admitted to the bar in 2007. He applied in February 2020 to be Newport’s city attorney, a position that ultimately went to former Newport city councilor David Allen.

According to statute, a full-time pro tem judge can be compensated as much as an elected one if they are on assignment every business day — circuit court judges make about $150,000 a year — and they can also agree to work without compensation.

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