Judge Michael Marcus

Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Michael Marcus

On a Friday in September, I had the privilege of spending the lunch hour in Judge Marcus' chambers to interview him for this article. Over his vegan burrito he took me back to Berkeley in the 1960s, the events of which inspired his long and significant legal career.

Judge Marcus' first trial was in defense of himself: In his undergraduate years at UC Berkeley he represented himself in a criminal trial, which he lost and which resulted in a 30-day jail sentence. (He was convicted for holding a sign outside the Berkeley Atomic Energy Commission office stating, "War Will Cease When Men Refuse To Kill." After serving his 30 days, he dropped out of school and went south to Long Beach, where he found a job at a guitar shop fixing guitars and banjos. But this detour did not last long. After Kennedy's assassination, Judge Marcus felt he could no longer "seek mere satisfaction" of his own life and returned to school to acquire the skills he needed "to effectuate change in the world."

Back at Berkeley he saw the inside of a jail again, briefly, for his arrest (along with hundreds of others) in the Sproul Hall demonstration, which was part of the Free Speech Movement. Judge Marcus graduated from UC Berkeley in 1966 and entered law school at Boalt Hall. His extracurricular activities were less than ordinary, including a stint as a volunteer hostage for the Black Panthers. (He and others surmised that the FBI would not raid the premises if white law students were sleeping inside.) He also co-authored an article on capital punishment (The Death Penalty Cases, 56 CALIF. L. REV. 1268 (1968)), eventually cited by the California and US Supreme Courts. Judge Marcus graduated from Boalt Hall in 1969 with no further convictions other than his personal one - that if the facts and law were on your side, you were supposed to win, and that cases were not supposed to be decided "on connections and partisan preferences." This mantra and others have guided his legal career.

After a clerkship with California Supreme Court Justice Raymond Peters, Judge Marcus went to work for Legal Aid in San Francisco. After four years he moved to Oregon and accepted the position of Director of Litigation for Multnomah County Legal Aid Services. Judge Marcus had a profound impact on Legal Aid during his 16 years there. His former colleagues there describe him as "extraordinary" and "a hero." He raised the bar at Legal Aid, inspiring the lawyers to work at a level of national excellence. One lawyer said it was like having your favorite professor three doors down, which was "both scary and good." Judge Marcus' intellect and legal skills, combined with his unparalleled dedication to his clients, made him a mentor to many. Outside the Legal Aid office he became known nationally for his work shaping modern landlord/tenant laws, and closer to home he educated local attorneys and judges on Oregon's evolving landlord/tenant laws.

In 1990 Judge Marcus was appointed as a district court judge in Multnomah County. From his first days on the bench it was clear to attorneys appearing in front of him that they were in the presence of a great intellect and a judge who cared deeply about access to the courts. It also became clear that Judge Marcus was to be an extremely hard-working judge who could be assigned any type of case, no matter the subject or complexity. Judge Marcus says his focus has been ensuring litigants a fair trial, and ensuring they are treated with respect. He has tried hard to avoid the "tyrant niche that judges can become famous for" and has strived to help jurors understand the significance of our jury system, which, in his view, is "the highest and purist form of democracy that has ever existed." On the criminal side he has been a tireless advocate of evidence-based sentencing, which he calls "Smart Sentencing," www.smartsentencing.com. He has also dedicated significant time to the Oregon Judicial Department's eCourt program. He is, in the words of a colleague, one of the great judges in Multnomah County.

To say that Judge Marcus has enjoyed a successful legal career is obviously an understatement. But what has changed since his stage II astrocytoma brain cancer diagnosis earlier this year? Not much really. Despite his treatment and fatigue he still works hard and still holds himself to high standards. (From what I observed it takes at least two people to pry him away from his desk at the end of his presently shortened day; namely, his wife and his legal assistant of 20 years.) Judge Marcus says he has no privacy gene and talks openly about his struggle with brain cancer. His humor is also unwaning. On learning of his brain tumor last December he says he had a choice: "I could have a biopsy or an autopsy." He plans to stay on the bench for the foreseeable future, but vows that if his performance slips he will "damn well retire." Another fitting mantra for a judge with the strongest of work ethics and highest of standards.

Originally authored by Elizabeth Knight and printed in the November 2010 Multnomah Lawyer
Updated for the Internet in 2012