Betsy Swanback

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October 30, 2013
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After presiding over too many cases to count, Douglas County judge retires

A longtime Douglas County judge who presided over many attention-grabbing cases in his 35 years on the bench will quietly retire Thursday.

In his resignation letter, Circuit Judge Ronald Poole, 67, made Oct. 31 his last official day as a judge, but he presided in court for the last time Friday.

Poole declined to be interviewed and refused to grant permission to let a photographer into his courtroom to photograph him. It was left to others to look back on Poole’s years on the bench.

“As an attorney appearing in front of Judge Poole, you could count on him to be fair and use common sense. He wasn’t afraid to tell it like it was,” said defense attorney Ann Marie Simmons, one of five applicants to replace Poole.

Poole often voiced his disdain for mandatory sentencing laws, which took discretion away from judges. His fellow Circuit Court judge, Bill Marshall, said Poole expected lawyers to be prepared and let them know it if they were not.

“He’s going to be missed, at least by fellow judges, because we lost a lot of history as he’s retiring,” Marshall said. “Judge Poole was always on top of the law and tried to always be on top of the issues in front of him.”

District Attorney Rick Wesenberg said Poole was an evenhanded judge. “He let the lawyers try their cases and he was excellent on the law,” Wesenberg said. “It was always a pleasure trying cases in front of him.”

Mostly, though, Poole will be remembered for his concern about children, Wesenberg said.

“Judge Poole was deeply committed to protecting the children of Douglas County,” he said. “The fact that he cared so much about kids was evident in the focus of his work.”

Poole presided for many years over cases involving juvenile defendants and child-custody issues. Wesenberg said Poole helped introduce Court Appointed Special Advocates to Douglas County to represent the interests of neglected children.

“He was very instrumental in the formation of CASA, which was fairly revolutionary back in the day and now has become an integral part of the juvenile dependency system,” Wesenberg said.

Marshall credited Poole with shaping how the county’s court system deals with children.

“He put in place a juvenile court improvement project that really modernized the practice of juvenile law in Douglas County,” Marshall said.

In an election questionnaire Poole filled out in 2008 for the Oregon State Bar, he wrote that court hearings affecting children were important to him.

“I am particularly concerned about issues involving our children,” he wrote. “I worked dependency matters for about 10 years, and I continue to deal with issues involving children and their families in my domestic relations case load.”

Poole saw thousands of defendants. He said in court this past summer that few cases stuck with him. But one case he remembered was the 2003 jury trial of Michael Bumgarner, who was convicted of raping a 4-year-old girl. Poole sentenced Bumgarner to nearly 61 years in prison, but one decade later Bumgarner was back in Poole’s courtroom to be resentenced.

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in another case dictated that Bumgarner’s sentence be cut in half. Ten years after pronouncing the original sentence, Poole recalled Bumgarner’s “horrendous act.”

“I can’t remember too many cases, but I remember this one,” he said.

Poole grew up in West Texas and graduated from high school in Crane, Texas, in 1964. He attended Abilene Christian College for one year before transferring to the University of Texas at Austin, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1968.

He entered the Army Reserves after graduation and served for one year before returning to Austin in the fall of 1969. He entered the University of Texas Law School, where he received a law degree in 1972.

Immediately after graduation, Poole and his family moved to Roseburg, and he took the Oregon bar exam. He worked as an associate of Randolph Slocum and was city attorney for Winston in 1973. He later became a partner in the firm and had a general law practice.

In 1978, he ran in the first contested judicial election in Douglas County in 18 years. He was 32 years old and unseated an incumbent District Court judge, Carl Felker.

On the 2008 questionnaire, Poole said he liked being in private practice, “but did not care for the economics of running a law office.”

“I thought my set of skills would be suited for the role of a judge and, quite frankly, the incumbent was vulnerable, so I organized and beat the streets,” he wrote.

In 1984, he was elected Circuit Court judge to complete an unexpired term. He won a full term the following November.

Also on the 2008 questionnaire, Poole noted he couldn’t count the number of trials over which he had presided. But he did state in response to another question that he was proud of presiding over the five-month murder trial of Samuel Lawson, who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 2006 for shooting to death a Green man and wounding his wife at a campground.

“It was an emotionally and intellectually exhausting ordeal, and to make matters worse, during the week prior to the jury selection, I fell off my horse and injured my ribs,” Poole wrote. “For several months, sleep was in short supply, and I couldn’t take pain medication during the day.”

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Lawson’s conviction, ruling that the sheriff’s office coaxed the wife into identifying Lawson as the killer. A new trial is pending in Circuit Court.

Gov. John Kitzhaber will likely appoint a new judge sometime in November. There will be a special election in May.

Besides Simmons, Deputy District Attorney Steve Hoddle, Circuit Court Hearings Referee Julie Zuver and private practice lawyers Charles Lee and Nancy Howe have applied.

The 2008 questionnaire asked Poole for his judicial philosophy.

“A trial judge must be reasonably intelligent, hard working and open-minded,” Poole wrote. “In addition, a judge must have the strength of character to stand alone and to do what the facts and the law require even if it is unpopular — especially in a community the size of Roseburg.”

• You can reach reporter Betsy Swanback at 541-957-4208 or

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The News-Review Updated Oct 30, 2013 01:06PM Published Nov 1, 2013 05:11PM Copyright 2013 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.