Retired Judge Charles Luukinen, ‘gold standard’ in Polk County, dies at 75

Fresh out of Willamette University in 1975 and interviewing for a prosecutor job, Charles Luukinen visited the Polk County Courthouse in Dallas.

He walked past the sandstone facade, through the front doors under the clock tower and took a tour. 

“That’s what a courtroom is supposed to look like,” he would later recall saying at the time to colleagues, according to Polk County Circuit Judge Norman Hill.

From then on, Luukinen would spend nearly half a century in the courtroom – as a prosecutor, a private attorney and as a judge. He died on Friday, Sept. 15.

Luukinen, 75, oversaw the Polk County Circuit Court for nearly 25 years as the presiding judge. 

“He loved being a judge,” Hill told Salem Reporter. “He used to say to me, ‘This is the greatest job in the world.’”

After retiring, Luukinen spent over a decade helping settle some of Oregon’s most complex and costly trials before they reached a jury. 

Colleagues described him as a larger-than-life phenomenon in the mid-Willamette Valley. With an innate sense of fairness, they say he had a knack for distilling complicated matters down to common sense morals. 

“He probably was a genius. I don’t know that he ever took a test,” said retired Judge Monte Campbell. “Had almost a photographic memory. He just never forgot anything, and that’s quite a big toolset for the job he did.”

Luukinen was born and raised in Astoria. While attending Oregon State University and Willamette University College of Law, he worked as a commercial fisherman. 

“He often talked fondly about spending summers on Alaska’s Bristol Bay,” Hill wrote in a letter announcing Luukinen’s death.

Luukinen was appointed as a judge in 1986 to the Polk County District Court, which no longer exists, and advanced a year later to the circuit court.

Campbell recalled interviewing in 1992 to become a law clerk in Luukinen’s office.

“I grew up in a small community and wasn’t all that sophisticated when I went to school,” Campbell said. He bought a suit for the interview, and one of his classmates pointed out that he didn’t have a belt.

But when Luukinen later came up from behind his desk to shake Campbell’s hand, he wasn’t wearing a belt either.

“To this day, I wonder if he somehow found out that I didn’t have a belt and took his off to make me feel better, because he was that kind of a person,” Campbell said.

Prosecutors and judges who worked with Luukinen described him as both a “judge’s judge” and a “lawyer’s judge.”

“He stayed out of the way of the lawyers, but he also made sure the playing field was level no matter what. You always knew you’re gonna get a fair shake,” Campbell said. “It didn’t matter which lawyer was on which side.”

District Attorney Aaron Felton said that in the courtroom, Luukinen was stern and in control, while remaining fair and compassionate to all parties. But if a lawyer went into his chambers after court and asked where they went wrong, he would mentor them through the issue. 

“He was always friendly, always professional, always civil. And for me it was such an impression, as a new kid on the block,” Felton said. “Now that I’m a little older, I try to take some of that and learn some of the ways to teach the newer attorneys that come through my office.”

Felton said many of the judges he came up with as lawyers went on to repeat “Luukinisms” – words and phrases borrowed from their mentor.

Decorum was of particular importance to Luukinen. Felton said when people would occasionally wear shorts in the courtroom, Luukinen would ask as they were leaving, “Are you going to the beach today?”

When they responded that they weren’t, he would clarify, “I assume you’re going to the beach, because you would never be wearing shorts to court.” 

Luukinen was also an avid hunter and fisher. Whenever those topics would come up in his courtroom,”you’d better have your facts checked,” Felton said, laughing. “If you’re right, okay, he’d work with you. But if you’re feeding him a line, oh, it was unpleasant.”

Campbell recalled one time he stole a Luukinism that made international news.

In 2014, a homeless man accepted a Video Music Award on behalf of singer and actress Miley Cyrus. When the man later appeared before Campbell in Polk County for a burglary case, he brought a high-powered attorney and showed up 45 minutes late, “with quite a fanfare and like we were wasting his time,” Campbell said.

“I set it for another hearing date and I said, ‘If you’re late, bring your toothbrush, because you’re gonna need it,’ which was a Luukinism,” he said. “It even made the papers in England. So, I think the difference between us is he knew when to use it and maybe I didn’t learn that.”

Colleagues said Luukinen had the ability to boil down complicated cases to a simple solution. 

That would come through when he would write an opinion letter closing a case, and in the way he treated people, according to Hill.

“He was a no-nonsense judge, and when you appeared in front of Judge Luukinen, you’d better have your ducks in a row,” he said. “But when you got all done and you look back on it, win or lose, you really felt like he did what was fair.” 

Hill said other judges knew that was how they needed to approach Luukinen for advice on handling cases. 

“I want to find out, what’s the moral center of this case?,” he said. “Not always on the law, but on just the humanity of the case, because that’s where he’s gonna be.”

When Hill came to the county as a law clerk, the Polk County Jail had less than 40 beds. 

Luukinen and the Polk County Board of Commissioners at the time put together a bond measure to expand the jail, which now has a capacity of 195 inmates, according to the county website.

“I think he was incredibly proud of that work,” Hill said. “That was talking to civic groups and other community leaders and letting them know this is a critical component of our public safety infrastructure that we were missing, and we still reap the benefits of that today.”

Luukinen was not shy, according to Campbell. But he had a subdued, strong personality. 

“He was a force of nature, but he was very quiet about it,” Campbell said “I don’t think he ever offered advice that wasn’t asked,” he said.

Luukinen was the type of person who had so much confidence that he would “leach your confidence away,” Campbell said. “But he also had a way of giving it back to you.”

Outside court, Luukinen was a scheduler and commissioner of the referees association. He frequently refereed high school and basketball games and consistently helped with Hoopla, a Salem basketball tournament.

“Hardest man to say no to you’ll ever meet in you’re life,” Campbell said. “There’s more people reffing because he said, ‘You know, you used to play basketball. Why don’t you come ref?’ Nobody could tell him no.”

Luukinen also served on boards for Family Building Blocks and Oregon Pers Retirees, and was a member of the Willamette Valley Inns of Court and West Salem Rotary. 

Campbell succeeded Luukinen as presiding judge when he retired in 2010.

“He left such big shoes, even if I put both feet in one of them, I’m not going to fill it,” Campbell said. “Nobody can take his spot.”

Luukinen’s death was sudden.

After talking to a current judge, Campbell said he sought Luukinen’s advice about a court function two days before his death.

“It was very helpful,” Campbell said of Luukinen’s response. “I decided I was going to follow his advice before this tragedy happened, and he never gave bad advice. If he had advice, you ignored it at your own peril.”

Former colleagues said Luukinen’s family was most important to him in his life. He is survived by Val Luukinen, his wife of 48 years, their children Alan, Bryan and Amanda, and four grandchildren. 

“He’s the gold standard,” Hill said. “What always amazed me about him is he had a sense of people, like nobody I’ve ever met. I think it’s one of the things that made him such a good mediator is he could just connect with people.”

After Luukinen retired from the bench, “his playtime was settling cases,” according to Campbell.

Luukinen opened a private mediation service, and people from all over the state reached out seeking his help to settle their case. He was known for settling aggravated murder trials, Hill said.

It was a continuation of Luukinen’s work on the bench, where he helped settle 19 aggravated murder trials in 11 counties. At the time, a conviction for the crime could have resulted in the death penalty before then Gov. John Kitzhaber issued a moratorium on executions in 2011.

Luukinen’s settlement work helped Oregon taxpayers save millions of dollars, Hill wrote in his letter.

“That means that families don’t have to relive this, the community doesn’t have to relive this,” he told Salem Reporter. “He was well known amongst the Judicial Court, and as somebody of significance – that when Charlie had something to say, people paid attention and listened.”

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.