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Making history

POLK COUNTY -- There's a wall in the upstairs courtroom in the historic Polk County Courthouse bearing portraits of all but the most recent county circuit and district judges.

Sally Avera will take the bench Monday as the first woman judge in a circuit or district court in Polk County.

Photo by Pete Strong

Sally Avera will take the bench Monday as the first woman judge in a circuit or district court in Polk County.

December 31, 2012

POLK COUNTY -- There's a wall in the upstairs courtroom in the historic Polk County Courthouse bearing portraits of all but the most recent county circuit and district judges.

"(Your picture) goes up when you leave," Sally Avera explained. "I hope you won't see mine up there until I'm 75."

Avera's picture will be unique to the collage. The Dallas resident, elected to Position 1 of the 12th Judicial District last May, is the first woman judge ever to serve in a circuit or district court in this county.

"I've thought about that some," Avera, 62, said. "I do know that while I was on the campaign trail, I had several women tell me `it was time.'

"But certainly, statutes and evidence code are genderless ... the law is the law, regardless of what gender you are."

Avera's official investiture ceremony with a representative of the Oregon Supreme Court won't take place until Jan. 25. State law allows her to work starting Monday, however.

As such, she'll be sworn in by Circuit Court Judge Monte Campbell before 8 a.m. that day, just in time to oversee the docket for courtroom No. 4.

"It will be strange for sure," Avera said of hearing the "all rise for the honorable Judge Avera" for the first time. She added with a laugh, "I'm going to be careful not to trip over the robe.

"I want to hit the ground running," she continued. "I have good credentials, but the role of a judge is certainly different than the role of an advocate."

Avera's legal career spans 34 years and more than 1,000 cases. It includes stints as Oregon State Public Defender and Polk County Chief Deputy District Attorney.

A job in criminal law wasn't what her father wanted for her while growing up near San Francisco, however.

"I'm sort of the black sheep of the family," Avera said. "My father was a doctor, a general practitioner, and both of my brothers are doctors ... my father didn't like lawyers."

Avera had visions of becoming a jockey or veterinarian until she took a labor law class at the University of California, Davis.

"I like a world where things are orderly," she said. "Usually, when you look at a rule of evidence or rule of law, there's a reason for it; it follows a logical and reasonable pattern."

After graduating, Sally and Fred Avera, her ex-husband and former Polk County Circuit Court Judge, moved to Oregon to attend law school at Willamette University. Avera interned at the Office of the State Public Defender, then opened a private practice in Dallas with Fred in 1977.

Though female lawyers from other parts of the valley practiced in Polk County, there were no resident women attorneys at the time, Avera said.

And attitudes were different then, Avera said, noting she took ribbings about looking better in a blue business suit than any male attorneys or "sleeping with her partner."

"There were a lot of things that today's women lawyers would consider patronizing and condescending," Avera said. "I think several of the older male attorneys didn't know how to treat me ... but there was never any bad intent involved."

After a few years, Avera said she had earned the respect of everyone at the courthouse.

"Women attorneys might not consider it a compliment today," she said. "But at the time when I was told I was `just one of the guys,' I considered it a high point."

Avera later took a job with the Office of the State Public Defender and ultimately became its director from 1989 to 1998. The office handled all indigent defense appeals, which put Avera on a "first-name basis" with everybody sitting on Oregon's death row for a time.

"Those are all stressful cases," she said.

Avera has been "job shadowing" her predecessor, William Horner, since shutting down her private practice in September, sitting in on juvenile proceedings and participating with the Polk County Drug Court program.

It will be odd being on the other side of the dais, listening to cases as opposed to arguing them, she said.

"But it's a tremendous help to have been on both sides of the equation," she said. "I have a conscious awareness of what needs to be on the record and how to protect it ... it's a benefit to be some of the places I've been."

Avera ran for circuit court judge twice - including 2010 - and said she long believed Polk County would have a female judge during her lifetime.

"I'm sure there will be other women who run for judge or are appointed after me," she said. "It's ceased to be an issue ... now it's just who has the best qualifications."

Did You Know ...

* Sally Avera is the first female judge in Polk County Circuit Court -- or the old district trial court that existed here before merging with the circuit court in 1998. County electronic and paper election abstracts show no woman had run during general and primary elections for a judge's seat from 1974 to 2010. It was 2010 when Avera and attorney Melanie Mansell ran for Position 2 of the 12th Judicial District.

Election records prior to 1974 were not easily accessible by press time. Polk County historian, former attorney and Capital Journal reporter Scott McArthur said he was "confident" that no woman has run for a judge's seat in this county until two years ago.

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