It was an unfamiliar role on familiar grounds when Dave Vandenberg began presiding over court cases on Monday as the new Lake County Circuit Court Judge.
Sworn in officially last Friday after being appointed to the role in August by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown following the resignation of Judge Rob Nichols, Vandenberg is excited for the new role, but sad that it necessitates closing a long-standing Lakeview business.
Vandenberg grew up in Lakeview, and recently celebrated his 30th year of practicing law, nearly all of which has been spent with the Lynch & Vandenberg Law Firm. The business has survived for a century in Lake County as one of the few local practicing law firms for everything from criminal cases to property transitions to divorce and litigation; but with no attorneys left to take over the practice it will unfortunately be closed – at least temporarily.
Following Nichols’ resignation the Lake County court system had undergone difficult times, transporting judges in from Klamath County to oversee cases – a process that created hardship for the local legal system. With the legal structure stabilized, Vandenberg hopes that court can get back to normal routines.
“I think everybody did a good job of cobbling things together, keeping it all moving under the circumstances, but at least now we will have all the players necessary to make it run, properly,” said Vandenberg.
The appointment to serve as judge from his longstanding role as a general legal practitioner for decades comes with some hardships. It requires ending his professional relationships with longstanding clients, transferring ongoing legal matters to other offices, and establishing a means by which former clients can still access case files.
Vandenberg’s new role has also forced him to resign from community positions he has long held with the Daly Fund and Collins-McDonald Fund, among others, so that his role as a neutral party can be maintained as a judge.
The requirement for a judge had been only to be an attorney in good standing with the Oregon Bar Association, and having a practice within the judicial district for at least a year. That second criteria changed this summer to also allow adjacent counties, so in addition to Vandenberg an attorney from Klamath County was also considered for the job. After initial appointment the position becomes a nonpartisan elected position, typically in the May primaries, though Vandenberg noted it has been many years since there was a contested judicial election.
“I guess it was just my turn as the old guy in town, not many of us were eligible,” laughed Vandenberg, with the line of succession of past Lake County judges Simpson and Nichols all coming from the same law firm. “Judge Nichols asked me if I was interested in some day being the judge. I thought he was talking at the end of his term, or a few years down the line, and all of sudden he resigned and it became more critical.”
Vandenberg is not the first judge in the family, his grandfather served as a Klamath County Judge for several decades after, according to Vandenberg, “he lost a coin toss to determine who would be the judge.”
While there are certain formalities to being a judge and courtroom protocol, it is a different perspective being on the other side of the bench, and aspects of it will admittedly take time to adjust. “Whenever someone says ‘your honor’ to me I start looking around because I think Judge Simpson or Nichols is standing behind me,” joked Vandenberg.
While there may be a learning curve to the process, Vandenberg takes the new job seriously. From his years as an attorney he knows the time and great expense involved in trials, and wants his courtroom to run efficiently and fairly. He has sought advice from regional judges to gain perspective on the best methods to the job. A longtime volunteer basketball coach, Vandenberg compared it to going from being a player to a referee -- there may still be the impulse to grab a rebound but he needs to be mindful to just be a neutral party making a decision.
“It has been a more difficult transition than I thought, telling people I can no longer help them has been tough,” reflected Vandenberg. “I hope that in my courtroom people feel like they are being treated fairly, that I haven’t pre-judged anything, and that the people of Lake County will have confidence that their court remains fair and trustworthy.”