VOTE 2024: Four candidates seek Marion County circuit judge seat

Four candidates are looking to fill the seat left by retiring Marion County Circuit Court Judge Donald Abar in the May 21 primary election.

When incumbent circuit judges retire mid-term, the governor temporarily appoints their successor until the next election. But Abar is retiring at the end of his term, leaving that decision in the hands of Marion County voters.

A circuit judge in Oregon is a nonpartisan position with a six-year term, and all voters in the county get a say in the race. Circuit court judges preside over criminal and civil cases as well as sentence criminal defendants.

The annual salary for the seat will be $197,800 at the start of 2024.

This is your guide to the only contested race for a seat on the Marion County bench, position 11.

David Carlson 

Age: 55

Education: Willamette University College of Law, J.D. 1994; Whitman College, B.A. in politics, 1991

Occupation: Solo practice attorney in wills, trusts, probate and guardianship

Previous legal experience: Chair of State Board of Professional Responsibility; Partner at Pierson, LaMont, Carlson & Gregg 

Total contributions: $6,858

Cash on hand: -$3,887

Top five donors: David Carlson, $5,000 loan; Robert Jones, $300; Cora Lee Carlson, $300, Gordon Dick, $250; and John Beckfield, $200

David Carlson

David Carlson has been practicing law in Marion County for 30 years. 

He said his well-rounded experience in and out of the court system, his ability to listen to people and his compassion make him the best candidate for the bench.

“I do what I do fundamentally because I want to help people, and I think that being a circuit court judge is a good way to extend that,” he said.

Carlson worked several years on divorces before becoming a criminal defense attorney. But after representing the same clients over and over again, he didn’t feel that he was making a positive contribution.

“I felt like I was just simply participating in a catch and release system, and I wasn’t doing anybody any good,” Carlson said. “I was doing my client good when I got them an acquittal or I got a dismissal, but there was not a lot of lessons being learned.”

He pivoted to working cases involving wills, trusts, probate and guardianship. Much of that work has involved helping senior citizens defend themselves from people seeking to scam them or steal their money.

Carlson has also represented Liberty House, a child advocacy center in Salem, for over two decades free of charge. “I enjoy helping kids, because they’re kind of inherently without a voice in our system for the most part,” he said.

The Oregon Supreme Court also appointed him in 2018 to serve four years on the State Board of Professional Responsibility, which prosecutes lawyers accused of ethics violations. He most recently served as chair of the board in 2022.

Carlson said his prime objective in sentencing would be to apply the law accurately, fairly and as compassionately as possible for everyone involved. 

He said sentencing also needs to be consistent. “We have seen, not so much in Oregon but nationally, a lot of instances in which different classes of people are treated differently, and that’s inappropriate,” he said.

Carlson said it is important for judges to have a wide range of experience with everyday people and issues.

“I think judges have a tendency to kind of be perceived as being in their own ivory tower and not really truly connected to the people around them,” he said. “I think that if you go into a judicial position without maintaining your connection to people, you run the risk of losing touch with them and not understanding the effect of what you’re doing.”

Martin Habekost

Age: 60

Education: Willamette University College of Law, J.D., 1990; Loma Linda University Graduate School, M.A., 1987

Occupation: Solo practice – criminal defense

Previous legal experience: Partner at Rockwell, Cowan & Habekost; Partner at O’Neill, Evans, Cowan & Habekost 

Total contributions: $21,240

Cash on hand: $9,566

Top five donors: Martin Habekost, $4,475 in-kind; Jason Short, $1,200; Spencer Todd, $1,000; Jeffrey Jones, $750; and Denny Maison, $750

Martin Habekost

After 33 years of practicing law in Marion County, Martin Habekost is entering the race for judge with hefty support.

He is endorsed by 12 retired Marion County judges – including Abar, whose seat he’s seeking to fill – and one from Polk County.

“I’ve been vetted by the judges that are endorsing me,” he said. “They’ve been watching me, it’s not something that they willy-nilly did. They’ve seen me work.”

Habekost began clerking at a general law firm during his second year of law school. After graduating, he worked for seven years as an associate at the firm, which handled criminal and civil cases, tort claims, divorce, custody modification, bankruptcy and appeals.

“It was just a good old fashioned general law firm. It was the days before computers, and so you had typewriters,” he said, laughing. “We just kind of did everything that came in the door.”

He spent the next two years working for himself with his wife, attorney Jill Foster, before rejoining the firm where he started as a partner. In 2002, he joined one of his partners and formed a new law firm, where he worked for four years. 

He has worked as a solo practitioner since 2006.

Habekost said he believes his extensive trial experience has prepared for a seat on the Marion County bench. 

“I’m in court all the time,” he said. That means he is consistently resolving unscripted issues that arise in court and dealing with people, sometimes those with difficult personalities.

He believes his peers who work in the court system would attest to his temperament and respect for others while still effectively getting the job done.

Habekost said another qualification is his acute awareness of public safety interests in the community. “Everybody wants to be able to go home with their families at the end of the day,” he said.

Matthew Tracey 

Age: 39

Education: University of Oregon School of Law, J.D. – 2009

Occupation: Pro tem judge since 2021, Marion County Circuit Court; hearings referee

Previous legal experience: Assistant executive director, Public Defender of Marion County; Intermountain Public Defender; Eugene Legal; volunteer at Lane County Public Defender

Total contributions: $22,181

Cash on hand: -$3,010

Top five donors: Matthew Tracey, $600 in-kind and $10,000 loan; Jason Short, $1,000; Arneson, Stewart & Styarfyr, PC Attorneys at Law, $1,000; Shannon Douglass, $1,000; Mary Sofia, $1,000 (tie)

Matthew Tracey 

Matthew Tracey has served for the last three years as a pro tem judge, a temporary position appointed by the presiding judge. “I’m not elected and I’m at will, but I handle many of the same types of cases that an elected judge would handle during the day,” he said.

In that role and as a hearings referee, he moves between criminal, civil and juvenile courts.

That work has well-prepared him to serve as a full-time judge, he said. He’s overseen criminal jury trials, juvenile delinquency trials, landlord and tenant cases, protective orders, civil commitments, arranging charges, and handling motions and sentencings in criminal cases. He has handled seven trials as a pro tem judge.

Early in his career, Tracey worked as a modest means attorney handling family law and probate cases in Lane County. He worked as a public defender there, in Coos Bay and in eastern Oregon before moving to Salem in 2017. 

He previously served as assistant executive director of Public Defender of Marion County, where he handled trials ranging from misdemeanors to murders and trained attorneys to work felony cases. 

“That administrative experience and the ability to handle that pressure is also a big part of what makes me qualified to be a candidate for this position,” he said.

Tracey also spent a year handling family law and probate cases. 

His varied experience has involved representing a variety of clients from different backgrounds, including people from different countries, businesses, people with mental health issues and drug addiction.

Tracey said judges play an important role in both creating a safer environment for the public and helping reform people who come before them.

He believes judges should use the various programs available such as specialty courts – drug, mental health veteran courts – and Marion County’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program. The LEAD program employs “navigators” who have previously struggled with addiction to help people who are homeless, have addictions or serious health problems address their underlying problems and avoid cycling in and out of jail or the emergency room.

Tracey said he is in favor of growing such programs so that more services are available to help correct people’s behavior.

“I think a good judge is going to use all of those tools available to try and be creative in trying to resolve the problem, rather than just having a person continue to reappear in front of them like a revolving door where nothing’s really getting better,” he said.

Tracey said his goals in sentencing are to make sure that the community is protected, the victim has an opportunity to be heard and receive compensation as needed, and the defendant’s constitutional rights are protected.

When appropriate, he said he would employ “suspended sentences” by referring people to treatment but sentencing them to prison if they don’t comply.

He said a judge should be making analytical decisions, not emotional ones, after considering all the evidence and factors in the case. In some cases, that means looking at the defendant’s criminal history to identify where they have been and where they could be headed.

“Sometimes probation has a greater rehabilitative effect and sometimes jail time is the appropriate answer,” he said. “I’m always going to be considering all of the options with an eye towards making sure that if this person can be rehabilitated, if they say that they’re interested in doing that and I identify that there is a chance that they will be, that I’m giving them the tools to try and fix whatever cycle of behavior has led to this, but also making sure that they’re held accountable.”

Michelle Vlach-Ing 

Age: 47

Education: Willamette University College of Law, J.D., 2001; University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu, B.A., 1998

Occupation: Criminal defense, arbitrator, mediator, parenting time coordinator, trademark, copyright, business law – solo practice; City of Salem pro tem judge, 2002-present

Previous legal experience: Partner at Crowell Ing, LLP; Associate attorney at Eskanos and Adler, PC; associate attorney at Law Office of Derrick E. McGavic

Total contributions: $5,938

Cash on hand: -$373

Top five donors: Michelle Vlach-Ing, $5,000 loan; Law and Mediation Office of Michelle Vlach-Ing, $219; Piilani Edwards, $125; all other donations under $100

Michelle Vlach-Ing

Vlach-Ing has broad experience in the law. She has practiced civil law in contract enforcement, intellectual property law, representing creditors, small claims, landlord and tenant issues, both ends of restraining order cases, banks and businesses, family law and criminal defense.

“I think I’ve had a hand in almost everything in the courthouse,” she said.

Early in her career, she clerked for the Lane County Circuit Court and the Oregon Department of Justice’s General Counsel Division.

She has also worked as an arbitrator and resolved over 1,000 mediation cases outside of court, including domestic relations, business matters and neighborhood disputes.

“I love helping people solve problems,” she said.

But after several years of doing that work, she found that most of her scheduled jury trials were settled on the eve of trial. “I started to do criminal law because I knew that I had this calling to be a circuit court judge,” she said.

Vlach-Ing said around 80% of her current work involves criminal defense, and almost entirely for felony cases in which she is either hired or court-appointed.

She works as a parenting time coordinator in cases which have concluded, helping resolve disputes of “extremely high conflict” between parents and keeping from ending up back in court.

Vlach-Ing also serves as a pro tem judge in the city of Salem for around two to four days a month handling matters including arraignment, bench trials, jury trials, special motions and settlement conferences. The full-time judge is often conflicted out of cases due to her former work as a defense attorney, prompting Vlach-Ing to step in and take her place.

She said she would feel comfortable jumping into any case. “I think I’m adept at knowing what I don’t know and going to the right source to find the answer, whether it’s starting off with doing my own research but then also talking to somebody that has a little bit of experience,” she said.

In addition to her varied experience, she said her community service is an asset that qualifies her to serve as a circuit court judge. Her volunteering experience includes the Lawyer’s Campaign for Equal Justice, Salem Fire Foundation, previous chair of the Oregon State Bar Alternative Dispute Resolution Executive Committee and team leader of Willamette Valley Inn of Court. 

“I think it’s really important that a circuit court judge, or that any attorney and professional here, gives back to the community and demonstrate that they’re vested,” she said.

She said her integrity is also a key asset for the job. “I need to be honest and forthright with my decision-making and how it came about that so that the record is preserved,” she said of cases that may be appealed. “The Court of Appeals and Supreme Court, whoever’s reviewing this, or even the litigants themselves when they go home that night and they fall asleep, they know that a sound decision was made and that the person who made that decision was knowledgeable and compassionate and cared about them and gave them an an honest response to their problems.”

In handling drug cases, Vlach-Ing said addiction needs to be viewed as a disease and treatment made available, while trafficking harms the community and needs to be treated accordingly. 

She said the court can sometimes fill a hole for people who don’t have the support of families or friends to guide them toward mental health, addiction or housing services.

Vlach-Ing said she would seek to uphold community expectations and standards in sentencing decisions.

“If somebody’s not going to benefit from treatment, or if they’ve been given one, two, three opportunities, seven opportunities to go through treatment, well, that obviously isn’t working. So what is our other alternative? And that would be to put that person in prison,” she said. “There are reasons why we have these laws, it’s to protect our community. It’s what our community wants, and it’s what our community standards are.”

In making decisions, she said she considers how 90% of judges and juries would come down on a particular issue.

“I think when people go to court, they need something consistent,” she said.

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.