Judge Valentine steps down after 20 years

After almost 20 years on the bench, Union/Wallowa County Circuit Judge Eric Valentine is retiring at the end of 2002. Photo by Elane Dickenson

The wording on Judge Eric Valentine's retirement cake at a farewell gathering in the Wallowa County Courthouse last week - "If I were king" - was a light-hearted reference to a comment the judge made in open court and was gleefully quoted by area newspapers. The case involved a knife fight that had occurred at a Troy dance in 1996.

While the judge admits he was not misquoted, he felt like maybe the papers had missed his point, that he would like to see the district attorney, law enforcement and the Troy community get together to solve a problem.

Judge Valentine's good-natured acceptance of the ribbing, as well as his desire to see the issues he viewed from the bench resolved in a fair manner, were representative of his years as judge.

While the judge lived in La Grande and spent most of his time there, Wednesdays was always reserved for court day in Wallowa County.

"The most wonderful fringe benefit to this job to me has been getting to know Wallowa County and its people," said Valentine at his retirement party.

Valentine, a Stanford graduate and former Peace Corps volunteer, was appointed to become 10th Judicial District judge by Gov. Vic Atiyah in the summer of 1983 to fill a vacancy left by the resignation of the two counties first district judge, James Monce.

Valentine had served seven years as deputy district attorney, worked with the law firm of Helm, Valentine and Riedlinger for four years and was deeply involved with public service as a Boy Scout Leader and past Rotary Club president when he ascended to the bench.

Since then he has become very active in the Wallowa Valley Photo Club and one of his photographs of Wallowa County graces the cover of the most recent cover of the Oregon Blue Book.

Valentine was transformed from district to circuit judge a few years ago when district courts in Oregon were absorbed by circuit courts.

Valentine and his wife Meg, a retired teacher and principal, have two grown sons, Matt, an emergency medicine resident, and Michael, a second year law student.

Valentine admits that he wasn't quite ready to retire, but nearing age 60, neither was he prepared to campaign for another term last year. "I knew I didn't want to serve another full six years, and I felt the voters should elect the next judge, instead of see one appointed.

His successor, Russ West, was elected in May and will become judge in January. He has been Union County district attorney for almost as long as Valentine has been judge. "I think Russ is a hard working and thorough, and has an excellent grasp of criminal law, which is about 75 percent of the cases," said Valentine about West.

"It was time," he said. Just recently Valentine said he experienced an epiphany" and actually began looking forward to his retirement.

"I've enjoyed the interaction with people, both inside and outside the courthouse," said Valentine, listing the parts of his judgeship he's enjoyed most. "I've enjoyed the intellectual stimulation."

The judge said that he's gained much satisfaction in watching defendants who've come before him get help through such court-mandated as drug treatment and 12-step programs, and "radically transform their lives." He said over 50 percent of his cases have been related to alcohol or drug abuse.

Valentine said the most difficult part for him was the passage of Measure 11 with mandatory sentencing of 70 months minimum prison time for serious crimes.

"Many people deserve the full impact of Measure 11, but ... sometimes it's not the appropriate sentence," he said. Judge Valentine said he is always fully conscious of the $45,000 a year it costs the state to keep a criminal in prison.

In retirement Judge Valentine vows to maintain the friendships he's developed in Wallowa County and will be back occasionally on the bench as a visiting judge.

He and wife Meg have no big travel plans in the immediate future, but will take advantage of their free time for spontaneous trips.

One project Valentine has in mind is the publication of a book of his photographic images of scenery, flowers, animals and "other creation of God" combined with scripture. He plans to call it "Thank You, God."

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