From Accra to Salem: Judicial Vacation Experience in Oregon, USA
By Margaret Welbourne, Justice of the Court of Appeal, Ghana.
Between 14th to 23rd August, 2019, I spent time visiting the Oregon Courts, in fulfillment of the quinquennial requirement to visit a judicial authority during the judicial recess in Ghana that runs from 1st August to 30th September each year. The quinquennial is a sabbatical that each judge is entitled to take every five years. Formerly it was just a holiday but beginning in the last five years, judges are required to visit courts or academic institutions in the jurisdictions they visit. I met with the administrator of the court, Nathan Wolfe on Tuesday the 13th of August and scheduled the court observation sessions with him.
Day One: Beaverton Municipal Court
The Beaverton Municipal Court, is a District Court which comprises of two divisions. Court (A) for traffic offenses and the other court (B) for Criminal cases. I sat in Court A which dealt with traffic offenses. This would be similar to the motor courts in Ghana. The court was presided over by Judge Juliet Britton, who also is the Presiding Judge of the Municipal Court in the city of Beaverton. Some of the offenses tried included driving whilst using a mobile device, speeding and driving under the influence, with sentences ranging from fines, community service and attending traffic school. The other observation was in court B which held criminal trials. What I found interesting was that the court used video conference to connect with the defendants in prison custody. This meant that the court and the prison authorities were saved time, money and security by using technology to conduct court hearings. The presiding judge, Judge Francisco took time to explain the procedures and implications of the choices the defendants could make regarding whether to plead guilty or not. Interestingly some of the defendants refused the offer of attorneys offered through the state of Oregon legal aid system.
Day Two: Specialty Court session
This court session dealt with defendants who were charged with driving under the influence (DUI). It entailed bringing in women and men separately into the court room, the prosecutor is present together with a clinician. The idea is for the Judge to interview the defendants on the progress made in following their treatments for the DUI. Each defendant has a case manager who assists him or her to follow through with the program. The idea is to get them off alcohol so that they are not a danger to themselves or to society. The judge spent a minimum of ten minutes per defendant.
What was illuminating to me was that the court was interested in solving some of the root causes of accidents and not merely being punitive. Defendants who could not afford to pay the fine were given an option to do community service or given a payment plan or a combination of both. Where a defendant is declared completely free from alcohol, then his/her driver’s license would be restored. For the defendants who had dropped out of school, there were opportunities offered to them to get an education such as the GED (General Education Degree). What I took away from the visits was the fact that justice was dispensed in a humane manner. The defendants were accorded respect, and all court procedures, laws and regulations were explained to them.
The Washington County Court
This County Court is akin to the Circuit Court in Ghana. An elaborate program was drawn up by Mr. Richard Moellmer, the Administrator of the County Courts. I was informed that there were twelve courts within the court premises. I began my day at 8.30am by attending an orientation program for persons who had been selected to be jurors. There was a presentation by an officer of the court and this was followed by a question and answer session by the jurors. Between 9am and 12 noon, I attended and observed trials at various courts. Some were civil cases but a lot more were criminal cases. In the afternoon I observed the selection and empaneling of the jurors for a sexual offense case before the commencement of the trial. It was interesting to note that some of the jurors were not interested in serving as jurors and therefore came up with excuses which would obviously disqualify them. In that regard out of the group of about forty jurors, four were excused from that duty. The State Prosecutor gave his opening statement followed by the defendant’s attorney. In the US the accused person is referred to as the defendant. The Prosecutor then called the victim to the stand to give her testimony. She was cross examined briefly by the defendant’s attorney. Then a witness was called to the stand. It was at that point that I had to go for a judges meeting on the criminal sessions held by Judge Owen. This was described as the Criminal Judges Policy meeting. Thereafter there was a meeting of judges and case managers chaired by Shadow Judge Keith Raines and I observed the discussion of cases involving juveniles, called the Juvenile Drug Court staffing and dockets.
A Visit to the Court of Appeal, Salem, Oregon
I visited the Court of Appeal in Salem which is about Forty-Seven (47) miles away from Portland. I travelled by coach and arrived there before 8am. My contact person was Daniel Parr the Administrator of the court. As he was on leave, his deputy Coty Holister facilitated my interactions with the judges prior to their Judgment conference. From 9am to 12.30 pm, I observed oral arguments by attorneys on different cases, the majority being criminal appeals. The Presiding judge, Justice Armstrong was assisted by his colleagues Tookey and Robyn Aoyagi. I learnt that the presiding judge was Twenty-Four (24) years on the bench, while Tookey was in his sixth year. Aoyagi was in her second year.
I had a good impression of the attorneys both state and private who had researched extensively and were able to give a good account of themselves when their submissions were scrutinized and questioned by the panel. We had lunch at the nearby Willamett University cafeteria where the first year students had just reported for the start of the semester. There was quite a crowd, nevertheless we just went alongside the students, picked our trays, filled the plates with our choice of food and proceeded to the cashier for payment. Lesson here is the informality and the fact that the judges could mix freely with the students.
Concluding Remarks and Recommendations
There is no doubt that the bulk of the cases are tried at the lower courts as we do in Ghana. However, these trials are supported by human-centered programs that are aimed at correcting the root causes of offenses, these are the programs that I will respectfully recommend for consideration. First, research could be done on the root causes of our road traffic offenses, and more importantly accidents on our roads. It is generally agreed that these have been attributed more to human error than mechanical faults. The findings of the research may then shape the programs that would help in minimizing these fatal accidents.
Second, to decongest the prisons, community service and fines and or traffic school ought to be considered at the sentencing stage. The option of offering a payment plan for the indigent may also be worthy of consideration. Third, I found that the meeting with judges and administrators of the courts is critical in ensuring a smooth operation of the courts and to track whether the mission and vision of the courts were being adhered to.Fourth, at the Court of Appeal, I realized that days had been set aside for oral arguments on the submissions filed. While this was commendable, my understanding was that this also led to a delay in dispensing justice at this level. I believe that the Ghana system of requiring oral arguments on an ad-hoc basis is preferable because these oral arguments take up several hours. My view is that since the arguments have all been submitted to the courts, it is more efficient to have these voluminous submissions read beforehand by the judges. Of course opportunity may be given to counsel to summarize their submissions in five or ten minutes as pertains in Ghana.
The court incidentally had morning and afternoon sessions with an hour’s break for lunch by all the parties. I also noticed that they had one of the most beautiful structures which were undergoing extensive renovation. I learnt that the court buildings and their maintenance was the responsibility of the County, or the community thereby freeing the court to concentrate on its core mandate to deliver justice. The Honourable Chief Justice, Sophia A. B. Akuffo insisted on a congenial atmosphere for the delivery of justice. She had a few courts closed down because they fell short of the standards. Thankfully we now have in Accra a Thirty-Four (34) Court Complex which houses several High Courts, Circuit Courts, a large Auditorium, a clinic, a gym, Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) rooms, and other amenities. It is hoped that the similar courts would be provided in the Regions. Let me take this opportunity to thank Her Ladyship, Justice Sophia A. B. Akuffo, the Chief Justice of Ghana, the Judicial Secretary and management for facilitating this study tour. Special mention must be made of all the administrators of the various courts visited particularly Mr. Nathan Wolfe of the Beaverton Municipal Court for linking me up with the Washington County Court and the Court of Appeal. I am extremely grateful. This experiential, cross jurisdictional learning tour will go a long way in helping me execute my duties as a Justice of Appeal in Ghana.