Judge Stephen K. Bushong

Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Stephen Bushong

Ask around the Multnomah County Courthouse, and you will quickly learn that Judge Bushong has developed a reputation for fairness, integrity and intelligence. He was appointed by Governor Kulongoski to fill the vacancy left by Judge Ronald Cinniger. At the time of the appointment, Governor Kulongoski said, "I've known Steve since I was the Attorney General and he is a brilliant, dedicated lawyer who has handled much of the state's major litigation while with the Department of Justice (DOJ). The court gains a great deal of experience and energy with this appointment."

Judge Bushong grew up in Michigan, attending the University of Michigan for both his undergraduate degree in economics and his law degree. From there, he went on to clerk for US Magistrate Marc L. Goldman at the US District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. After a lifetime of Michigan winters, though, Judge Bushong was ready to try life in a more temperate climate. He considered a few options, but ultimately settled on Portland, thanks in part to his brother living nearby. He remains, however, a fan of the Detroit Tigers and still cheers for his alma mater when attending Duck football games.

Judge Bushong came to Oregon in 1985 and began working in private practice at Miller Nash. He specialized in complex civil litigation and appeals and remembers his time there fondly. In 1993, he opened a solo practice for about a year, but a call to public service led him to Oregon's DOJ in 1994.

He began his work at the DOJ as an Assistant Attorney General in the Trial Division Special Litigation Unit. He defended the state in lawsuits, including one to block the execution of a death-row inmate, and challenges to the validity of Oregon's Death with Dignity Act. After four years, he was promoted to the Attorney-in-Charge of the Special Litigation Unit. In addition to his supervisory duties, he was also the lead trial counsel in Oregon v. Ashcroft, the lawsuit brought to challenge the US Attorney General's attempts to block Oregon's Death with Dignity Act; Macpherson v. Department of Administrative Services, the suit challenging the constitutionality of Measure 37; and Li v. Oregon, regarding same-sex marriages.

Although those cases received the most media attention, it was his work on Staley v. Kitzhaber that Judge Bushong recalls as some of his most important. The case itself was a class action lawsuit filed by the Oregon Advocacy Center (now Disability Rights Oregon) alleging that the state had failed to provide adequate services to adults with disabilities. The legal issues in the case involved unsettled areas of the law, so the outcome was difficult to predict but certainly could have been litigated. Bushong met with then-Governor Kitzhaber along with colleagues and policy advisors to discuss the case. In this meeting, the pros and cons of litigation were discussed, and the decision was made to settle the case. What made this so remarkable to Judge Bushong was the Governor's decision to do the right thing, not the most expedient thing, or the least expensive. "The Governor showed real political courage," he says.

In 2005, Judge Bushong was promoted again, this time to Chief Trial Counsel at the DOJ. He took over management responsibility for all civil lawsuits filed against the State of Oregon, including collateral challenges to criminal convictions, condemnation, commercial, environmental, administrative law, tort, employment and suits for declaratory and injunctive relief. Even with the additional managerial concerns, he still found time to be lead counsel in a few cases, including Oregon v. Legal Services Corporation, challenging federal restrictions on a legal services program for the poor, and OHCA v. Oregon Home Care Commission, which challenged laws authorizing the creation of a commission to regulate in-home care for the elderly. The Chief Trial Counsel is also a member of the Attorney General's Executive Staff, and in that capacity he assisted in developing legal policies and coordinating legal services provided throughout state government.

While at the DOJ, Judge Bushong met his wife. They enjoy movies, music, and books, and caring for their pets. The two of them like to get out of town on the weekends and spend time at their beach house.

When asked what he likes best about being on the bench, Judge Bushong says that he enjoys his colleagues, the interesting cases, the direct impact he has on people's lives and the feeling of giving back to the community. He encourages the attorneys who appear in his court to show professionalism at all times, especially in front of the jury, when dealing with court staff, and when dealing with opposing counsel. He thinks lawyers should choose their battles, and encourages especially the young lawyers to always remember three things: tell the interesting story of your case, pare down the case and respect the jurors, and when closing, argue the case, don't just regurgitate the facts.

It is easy to see why Governor Kulongoski was so enthusiastic about appointing Judge Bushong to the bench. Handling cases for the state that cut across political lines as a trial lawyer forced him to set aside his personal feelings and simply analyze the facts.

Originally authored by Heidi Moawad and printed in the September 2008 Multnomah Lawyer
Updated for the Internet in 2012