Photos and story by Michele Mihalovich
It’s nothing personal. But if Pamela Burkholder Turner meets you once, she doesn’t want to meet you again—at least not in her courtroom.
Turner, elected judge for Ashland’s Municipal Court in 2006, says it’s surprising how many people in Ashland don’t even know the city has a court.
Minor traffic violations are handled at the Civic Center counter, but Turner holds court every Tuesday morning and every third Wednesday evening in Council Chambers for violations, minor criminal offenses, trials and a few traffic cases that cannot be resolved at the counter. She could hear cases ranging from noise violations, bar overcrowding or petty theft.
The Tuesday courtroom is attended mostly by 18 to 20 year olds who face Minor in Possession charges. Conversations heard while waiting for Turner to appear are peppered with lots of giggles and the word "dude."
Turner doesn’t fit the stodgy, gruff stereotype of a judge. She doesn’t slam gavels or don a black robe. Last Tuesday she dressed in a burgundy sweater with matching scarf and has a rather muted courtroom style compared to television's Judge Whopner and Judge Judy.
To the under-aged female student from Southern Oregon University who hosted a party for 150 people — many whom were minors — Turner incredulously asked, "What were you thinking?"
To the under-aged male SOU sophomore facing his fifth MIP charge, Turner asked, "What were you thinking?" The 62-year-old judge said her most important goals as a judge are education and helping people modify their behavior.
"I don’t want to see them again," she said. "What I’m hoping is that they’ve learned their lesson and won’t do it again."
She asked the SOU student with the multiple MIPs if he’d attended any drug and alcohol classes.
He responded, "Yes. But it just didn’t apply to me. I mean, there were people facing DUIs in that class. I didn’t identify with anyone in there."
"You may not have identified with anyone in that class," she said. "But I think you’re looking at your future if you don’t take care of this (alcohol problem)."
Care and concern
Turner said she’s very protective of the people who come before her.
"I don’t want to just issue fines. I hope that I can help them by educating them," she said.
Turner said defendants can get highly emotional in court, and at the front counter.
"People are not happy to be here. They’re not happy about parting with their hard-earned money," she said. "I’ve heard a man (at the front counter) scream for 45 minutes about a $9 parking ticket."
Turner said the real heroes of municipal court are the clerks who work the front office.
"They handle situations like that with such patience and grace," she said.
May I help you?
You’d think that 20-year-veteran Vicki Christensen, court clerk supervisor, has heard it all.
"Some stories we do hear over and over again," she said. "But we also come across new problems and situations. I’ve even teared up a time or two listening to peoples’ stories — some of them are heartbreaking."
Christensen said her customers, most of whom are defendants, may initially "lash out at us. But in the end, we calm them down. We try to come up with solutions. They see that we are willing to help and people have even thanked us when they leave."
During court last Tuesday, Turner chastised three young men who were talking while court was in session.
"This isn’t live theater," she scolded.
But in many ways, the drama that unfolds in a courtroom is live theatre. No one can predict what will happen — even during Ashland Municipal Court. Tears are shed, people scream, people accuse.
Kip Todd was in public relations for ATT for 22 years before he retired and moved to Ashland. For the last five years he’s served as the court’s bailiff, a job which he describes as riveting.
"I’m amazed at how many ways people can find to get themselves into trouble," he said.
His most exciting day of court was when he heard a 20-year-old man muttering, "I’ll die first. I’d rather die."
"He kept saying that over and over again. Next thing I know, he jumps straight up into the air over the table and runs off," Todd said. "We didn’t catch him, but he turned himself in later. It’s what I see in here all the time. Something minor that just escalates into something big."
Judge Pamela Burkholder Turner’s staff works Friday morning at Ashland Municipal Court.
Thom Larkin | Daily Tidings
Ashland's municipal court judge lays down the law
Photos and story by Michele Mihalovich