Adoption case judge focuses on law

While he has made many unpopular decisions, the man who will decide on the constitutionality of Measure 58 is known for being fair

Saturday, December 5 1998

By Kate Taylor of The Oregonian staff

SALEM -- The judge who will decide whether adoptees can see their original birth certificates is known as a maverick to attorneys, "Darth Vader" to co-workers and "The Mean Judge" to the huge number of juvenile delinquents he's sent to detention.

Marion County Circuit Judge Albin W. Norblad has been described as "Darth Vader" by co-workers and "The Mean Judge" by juvenile delinquets he's sent to detention.
Marion County Circuit Judge Albin W. Norblad this week blocked from becoming law a voter-approved measure that would have allowed adults who were adopted in Oregon to see their birth certificates. The measure is on hold until legal challenges are resolved.

The ruling exasperates adoption activists who say it is their right to see birth certificates, but that isn't likely to sway 59-year-old Norblad, whose commanding presence, black robe and low, raspy voice has for some recalled the brooding Star Wars character.

The judge declined to be interviewed for ethical reasons, and his lengthy judicial record offers few clues as to how he will rule on the lawsuit. The suit filed by four birth mothers argues that they were promised confidentiality when they relinquished their children to adoption years ago.

Those who work daily around Norblad expect that his decision on the emotionally charged adoption issue will be a dispassionate reflection of the way he understands Oregon law.

"He makes decisions quickly and decisively and is not concerned about whether they might be unpopular," said Steven Gorham, a criminal defense attorney in Marion County.

Norblad, who made hundreds of unpopular decisions as a juvenile court judge in the 1970s when he apparently sent more youths to MacLaren School in Woodburn than any other judge in the state, is "clearly his own person," Gorham said.

Norblad, whose grandfather was once governor and whose father was a U.S. congressman, always has been passionate about law.

While his decisionmaking will be swift, "People can be assured that he will have all the facts in the case, will have considered all the challenges, all the factors and how the law impacts all parties," said Carla French, who was for years an assistant to Norblad and is now a criminal defense attorney. "It will be an extremely well-though-out decision."

His passion for the law helps make his decisions more unpredictable than judges who advocate from the bench.

For example, he is considered politically conservative, yet in 1994 he upheld a controversial state law banning enforcement of local anti-gay rights ordinances, saying the Legislature had the right to bar local laws on major policy issues, such as gay rights. Opponents of the state law, such as Lon Mabon, called the ruling "pro-homosexual."

"He's a fair guy," said Stephen Dingle, a Marion County deputy district attorney. "He follows the law, wherever he can."

Norblad's approach to courtroom conflicts is often unconventional. "He's a bit of a maverick," Gorham said. For example, he often allows attorneys from opposing side access to documents or evidence they would not normally have.

Gorham no longer practices in front of Norblad after an explosive disagreement several years ago over a death penalty case. Gorham said he does not always like the way the judge handles cases -- often cutting off attorneys and not listening -- but says he believes the decisions that come out of Norblad's process are thoughtful.

Some decisions are less creative than courageous, Dingle said.

After Norblad began sending children to schools such as MacLaren, word spread on the streets about a new judge who made no empty threats, said French, a former assistant to Norblad.

Yet Norblad also is respected by many of those in social service work. "True, he was sending kids to MacLaren when that wasn't a very popular thing to do," said Betty Uchytil, director of field operations for the State Office for Services to Children and Families. "But he was taking an action that he thought would get a result."

Norblad got his bachelor's degree from the University of Oregon and his law degree from the Willamette University College of Law. He has served as a district and circuit court judge, as well as a municipal court judge and a deputy district attorney.

Norblad has a strong sense of humor, according to co-workers. He recently had surgery to remove his larynx, but didn't mind when support staff referred to him as "Darth Vader."

Since then, he has told reporters that it's not so bad having to speak less -- that everyone would be better off saying less.

Lovelle Svart of The Oregonian staff contributed to this story.
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