As a law student, Tigard’s new Municipal Court Presiding Judge may have wanted to apply her legal skills in the public sector, but she never envisioned sitting on the bench.
“I actually went to law school thinking I wanted to work in state or local government,” said Emily Oberdorfer, who was appointed to the position in March. “But while I was there, I decided I wanted to be a courtroom lawyer, which is very different.”
After graduating from Lewis and Clark Law School in 2009, Oberdorfer immediately got a look at the courtroom, however, thanks to a position as a law clerk for Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Nan Waller. While there, she also met her future husband, Rich Oberdorfer, who appeared before Judge Waller at a restraining order hearing. They struck up a conversation, and later that year she went to work with Oberdorfer as a defense attorney handling traffic cases. It followed upon her experience in law school, working as a legal observer for the National Lawyers Guild and gaining experience on high-profile police misconduct cases.
“I hit the jackpot when I got that job,” Oberdorfer said. “Yes, she (Waller) is just such a strong woman in Oregon leadership. I felt really lucky about that.”
Now, Oberdorfer is dispensing justice for the City of Tigard. It’s not exactly a new experience for her – she served as Tigard’s pro tempore judge from April 2017 until her appointment in March. In that post she worked as a back-up to longtime Judge Michael O’Brien, who stepped down from his position after 29 years as presiding judge. O’Brien, ironically, is now one of the City’s pro tempore judges and serves on the City’s Public Safety Advisory Board. He said Oberdorfer made numerous appearances in Tigard Municipal Court in a defense role prior to becoming a judge.
“I was confident she would do a good job when I heard she was appointed,” O’Brien said. “I was not surprised; it would be hard to find anyone who is better suited to the job, in my opinion.”
For her part, Oberdorfer said that she strongly admires O’Brien’s work with the City and intends to maintain his judicial approach in her new role.
“Tigard is a special, special place,” she said. “They’ve really worked hard to be forward thinking and to use the right terminology and to understand why we’re using particular words or being willing to learn that kind of stuff, which is really huge in the criminal justice system.”
Learning how to respect people doesn’t happen in every court, she added.
“I wanted to work with those people in that kind of environment, and it wasn’t an easy job to get,” she said. “They had a really large applicant pool, from what I understand, and I feel really fortunate to be there. And I feel fortunate to be able to talk to Judge O’Brien still, he mentors me.”
O’Brien said the feeling is mutual.
“I hope the things she’s learning are positive,” he said with a laugh. “She’s a delight to work with. I think we just have conversations between equals; mentoring is not the word that comes to mind for me. I’ve tried to be available if anything came up, but I’ve relied on her for advice in situations where I wasn’t sure how to proceed. There’s a lot of mutuality there.”
Oberdorfer’s hiring comes during an expansion of the municipal court brought on by the introduction last fall of automated speed cameras at several key intersections along Highway 99.
O’Brien said the introduction of traffic cameras was probably the most significant change during his 29 years as presiding judge. It meant a four-fold increase in traffic citations to process, from roughly 5,000 annually to 20,000, and a need for more space and more personnel.
“There is fluctuation from time to time in that caseload, but by far the biggest change has been planning for photo enforcement and implementing it last year,” he said. “We had to move to a different part of the building, expand our office space and do a lot of hiring.”
The City recently hired a new court operations supervisor and is in the process of hiring two additional court clerks to help process cases.
All in all, however, don’t expect much to change if you have to go to court. Oberdorfer believes in the model that she inherited.
“It is a larger and new group, but I hope to continue to do things as Michael O’Brien did when he trained to me to be a judge,” Oberdorfer said. “I think he was really good at it, and I don’t expect to make any sweeping changes or administer justice in a different way.”