SALEM — Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul De Muniz visited Jesuit High School in 2009. The student newspaper called him "helper of the helpless" and "protector of the innocent."
De Muniz, who steps down as chief justice May 1, smiles at the superhero monikers. But for decades, he's focused on precisely those values.
His Catholic faith has helped. "You've been given this enormous power," De Muniz says of elected office. "Faith helps you put that into perspective. You know that you are only here for a brief period, that what you do is only a dot in time." Simultaneously, explains this member of Queen of Peace Parish, the serenity that accompanies faith liberates a person's energy for public service.
De Muniz, at 64 a gentle man who in the courtroom can still become a tiger, will stay on the Supreme Court as an Associate Justice until year's end. He calls the current court "an incredible, collegial group."
In his 11 years on the high bench and six years as chief, the justices have appeared at the intersection of every political, social and economic issue in Oregon, from public employee retirement reform to freedom of expression, same-sex marriage and who qualifies for ballots. Often, the court considers religious freedom cases — the issue is usually melded with tax law, unemployment or some other state function. Through it all, De Muniz maintains what he calls a "healthy skepticism" about government and those who wield power.
Raised by his mother, he began working at 16. He graduated from Portland's Madison High School in 1965, with his counselor telling him he was not cut out for college. He spent four years in the Air Force, including a year in Vietnam. In the military, he developed self-discipline. De Muniz came back from Vietnam with a strong conviction about a way to live — treat others as you would like to be treated.
After his discharge from the service, De Muniz received a bachelor's degree from Portland State University in just two years and earned a law degree from Willamette University in 1975. He was the first member of his family to attend college.
After several years as a public defender, De Muniz joined a Salem firm and began taking on complex cases. He came into the national spotlight in the late 1980s. That's when he worked without pay to appeal the conviction of Santiago Ventura Morales, a farmworker in Oregon convicted of murdering a fellow laborer in a field. Jurors with second thoughts initiated the appeal.
After De Muniz built a strong case, even traveling to Mexico to find witnesses who heard another man confess to the killing, he was appointed a judge for the Oregon Court of Appeals. What at first seemed like a blow to the Morales case ended up being a boost. It meant De Muniz could legally testify in the appeal. His appearance as a witness gave powerful coherence to the case; the court found multiple problems with the trial, including the faulty assumption that the defendant knew Spanish even though he is an indigenous Mixtec. Morales was freed and De Muniz pushed for court reforms to prevent other inept convictions.
"My argument was, we don't give special privileges, but we make the system fair," he says of the case, which shaped his view of justice. "You don't give some people an advantage."
De Muniz won admiration from some, but made enemies among some prosecutors. It's part of life in the legal world, he says. During his time as an attorney, he handled four death penalty appeals and 10 other murder cases. Early on, he took a case defending the sovereignty of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation.
De Muniz admits that, when he first became a judge, he found it difficult to be an impartial ear instead of what he had been — a zealous advocate. But he melded his experience as a youth and as a lawyer, which made him a judge who understands common folks' perspective. In addition, he's never forgotten his time in Vietnam, where he learned that the government can make "tremendous mistakes."
De Muniz won statewide election to the Oregon Supreme Court in 2000 and has been chief justice since his peers elevated him in 2006. He's the first Latino to hold the post. As part of the job, he heads the Oregon Judicial Department.
He's had to make the courts more efficient because of budget cuts. He traveled the state, asking judicial employees to re-engineer the systems and increase public access while saving money. He even asked his fellow Supreme Court justices to share assistants.
If he had his druthers, De Muniz would use the savings for research and development to make the courts work better. He's frustrated that the Legislature keeps taking away whatever he saves.
Despite that, he's presided over a push to use the internet and technology more. With Oregon eCourt, citizens can file documents, view data, pay fees and manage cases online. Videos of Supreme Court arguments are now available in an internet video archive.
"We needed to look at the future of the courts," De Muniz says. "Courts are already in a battle to remain relevant to younger generations. They're used to an open society, getting all the information they can. Will younger generations have the patience for drawn-out court processes and have patience for rules of procedure and rules of evidence that had their origin in the ancient Roman Empire?"
De Muniz digitized prisoner litigation and implemented an expedited six-member jury option for civil cases. For complex cases, he has local judges give way to others in the state who have experience in the particular subject. That speeds things up. His hope in the future is to provide more online help for litigants who want to represent themselves in court.
Last year, De Muniz was inducted into the National Center for State Courts' Warren E. Burger Society for his commitment to improving the administration of justice within the states. He is on the Board of Trustees for the National Judicial College and recently completed a three-year term as a member of the Harvard Kennedy School's Executive Session for State Court Leaders in the 21st Century. He also founded a rule-of-law partnership with judicial leaders in the Russian Far East and has continued to work with lawyers and judges in Russia to implement reforms in the Russian criminal justice system.
The Oregon Hispanic Bar Association named a professionalism award after him.
He speaks to national and international audiences on the importance of maintaining independent state judiciaries, improving state court administration and the need for adequate state court funding.
De Muniz announced his decision to retire early so prospective Supreme Court candidates will have time to prepare. Justice Thomas Balmer will step into the chief's role in May.
"Chief Justice De Muniz has been an innovative leader and a tireless advocate for open and accessible courts and promoting timely justice for the people who rely on courts to protect their rights and safety," Balmer says. "I will continue his important initiatives and do everything I can to ensure that Oregonians can rely on their state courts for prompt and impartial decisions in the thousands of cases that come before Oregon judges every day."
After retirement, De Muniz will spend more time working with Catholic Community Services' programs for parents and foster children. He considers it no coincidence that, at any given time, the number of kids in foster care is about the same as the number of prisoners in the state.
"Reducing maltreatment of children and intervening before the state does is extremely important to me," De Muniz says. He wants neighborhoods, not the state, to be the first line of defense for child well-being. That would not only be good for youths, it would save the state millions, he explains.
De Muniz and wife of 40 years, Mary, live in Salem. They have three grown children and two grandchildren.
Father George Wolf was pastor at Queen of Peace in Salem for years. He recalls Paul and Mary De Muniz for their strong commitment to the parish and their diligence and dedication to things Catholic.
"Paul is a good representative of the Roman Catholic Church in Salem," says Father Wolf. "He doesn't hide it or shy away from it, but he doesn't wear it on his sleeve or rub it in people's faces. He gains respect across the aisle."
De Muniz's 2009 visit to Jesuit High was one of dozens of hearings the Supreme Court held on the road in the presence of youths. De Muniz wants young people to see the inner workings of the judicial system he credits for maintaining U.S. democracy for so long.
“I’m convinced that our citizens’ understanding of the delicate checks and balances among the three branches of government and their vital importance for our survival as a nation is not passed down through our DNA,” De Muniz says. “Our constitutional democracy has endured because of our public’s confidence in the courts.”