One would not necessarily expect to find the Oregon Supreme Court’s chief justice rocking out to the Decemberists or the Shins at the Crystal Ballroom … unless one knew Tom Balmer.
Balmer grew up in a house filled with music as he and his brothers, Andy, Paul and Dan played in rock bands and cranked up their favorite music during the 1960s and ’70s. Tom Balmer’s appreciation for good music, ranging from classical to Portland’s indie rock, continues to grow.
An even greater appreciation for the Constitution and the rule of law led Balmer to become a lawyer. He left his hometown of Portland to earn a political science degree at Oberlin College in 1974 and a law degree from the University of Chicago in 1977. Balmer practiced in both the private and government sectors on the East Coast for several years before returning to Portland in 1982 and joining the law firm of Lindsay Hart Neil + Weigler.
In private practice, Balmer represented individuals and businesses in antitrust, intellectual property, employment and other civil disputes. He served as managing partner for Lindsay Hart and Ater Wynne, with a four-year stint as deputy attorney general in between. As deputy AG, Balmer successfully defended Oregon’s Death with Dignity law.
Gov. John Kitzhaber appointed Balmer to the Supreme Court in 2001, and he took over as Oregon’s 43rd chief justice in May. Balmer shares with Briefly Legal what he likes most about his work, what his goals are for Oregon’s judicial system, and where he loves to be at sunrise. His responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Briefly Legal: What drew you to a legal career?
Balmer: I like working with people and the commitment to the rule of law, which I came to think early on was an important part of our constitutional democracy and I wanted to play a role in that. I also thought it was a good match for my skills because I enjoy the reading and the analysis, discussing public policy issues, and trying to find a way to move towards the resolution of a dispute.
BL: What is your top priority as chief justice?
Balmer: We have to protect people’s constitutional, statutory and contractual rights in a time of substantial reductions in state government spending. In the last five years, we have lost 15 percent of our court staff positions. We want to keep the courts open, accessible and fully functioning so we can give people their day in court. We are looking at ways to do our work more efficiently, and we are working with the legislature to restore judicial funding.
BL: What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
Balmer: I love to play and hear music, ride my bike and backpack. I also play tennis and have a regular doubles game at Washington Park with a group of lawyer friends. To be at the park’s rose garden early in the morning is truly a spiritual experience.
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