Judge Timothy J. SercombeOregon Court of Appeals
Judge Timothy Sercombe began life in the middle of the country and has lived on both coasts. Born in Columbia, Missouri, his family moved to Connecticut where he attended junior high and high school. He graduated from Evanston's Northwestern University in 1971, concentrating on political science and history.
He was always drawn to law, but initially was discouraged from a legal profession by his college professors. One professor was concerned that the future judge was already a "linear" thinker and that law would only make him more so. To dip his toes in the water, Sercombe worked as a paralegal at the Sidley Austin firm in Chicago. Rather than stifle or dissuade him, the experience confirmed his ambition, as he enjoyed the experience of working in the legal field.
Befitting his Midwest roots, Judge Sercombe is straightforward and polite. His plainspoken style, however, does not hide his curious mind. It was that curiosity which first brought him to Oregon in the mid-seventies. He saw Oregon as a place for progressive and new ideas that would challenge his thinking. He enrolled in the U of O Law School, where he graduated first in his class in 1976.
Judge Sercombe began his legal career as a clerk for the Oregon Supreme Court, initially with Justice Kenneth J. O'Connell. He fondly recalls Justice O'Connell as an academic type, constantly interested in discussing current ideas. Justice O'Connell, who wanted written opinions to be more gender neutral, was more likely to talk with Sercombe about current issues of feminism than to discuss the latest draft of an opinion. Justice O'Connell retired mid-way through Judge Sercombe's clerkship and Sercombe went to work for Justice Berkeley "Bud" Lent. Judge Sercombe finished his clerkship helping Justice Hans A. Linde with a few opinions as well and has sought out Justice Linde for both legal advice and mentoring many times since then.
Following his clerkship, Judge Sercombe started at the Harrang Long firm in Eugene where he developed a practice representing local governments. He was the lead attorney for the City of Eugene for years and also represented other cities and counties, where he developed skills in municipal law and appellate work. In 1991, Judge Sercombe moved to the Preston Gates firm where he further developed his municipal, land use and appellate practice. He remained in private practice until March 2007, when he was appointed to the Court of Appeals by Governor Ted Kulongoski.
As a judge, Sercombe has found the court to be far less "isolating" and "ivory tower" than he initially feared. He enjoys the intellectual camaraderie of the court, which he describes as "very collegial" with "no rancor." Judge Sercombe still feels as if he's settling into the job, which he sees as a two-year process before he feels he can reach a comfort level. While he draws upon his past experience in land-use and municipal law on occasion, he is new to many of the substantive areas of the court, such as criminal law, workers compensation and juvenile law. In addition to the new substantive areas, Judge Sercombe believes the transition is difficult because of the different time demands on a judge as compared to private practice.
For advice, Judge Sercombe suggests attorneys focus their briefs as much as possible. While he readily admits that as an attorney he would repeat an argument many times to ensure his point was made, he finds those briefs more fatiguing as a judge, who has to read countless briefs. He urges attorneys to make their points concisely in a shorter argument section rather than many times over. He is very impressed with his fellow judges and is confident that they will spot an argument made well once. He is also impressed (and perhaps surprised, based on his pre-court notions) by the amount of vetting that an opinion gets from the clerks, staff attorneys, support staff and the judges themselves.
For oral argument, Judge Sercombe suggests that attorneys focus more on preparing to address the one or two core issues that the court is likely to address. There is no time for a long, prepared speech at argument. Attorneys should know the record and the law and strive to communicate the core points of the appeal. He also suggests acknowledging weaknesses, but directly addressing it when an issue is not conceded.
Judge Sercombe's judicial style sounds much like his personal style: polite, direct and intellectually curious.
Originally authored by Scott Shorr and edited by Stephen Madkour and printed in the May 2008 issue of the Multnomah Lawyer. Edited and reprinted with permission from the OSB Appellate Practice Section
Updated for the Internet in 2008