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Ann Aiken: a truly different federal judge

Penelope Gibbs
15 Jul 2014

On my travels so far, people have distinguished the Federal Justice System from the State system.  State judges generally depict Federal judges as more conservative and traditional, not interested in problem solving justice.  A key difference is that Federal judges are always appointed and have jobs for life, and life means life because there is no compulsory retirement age.  Federal courts deal with the most serious criminal and civil cases.  Walking into the Federal Court in Portland Oregon, the atmosphere is completely different to the State Court just across the square. The Federal Court is huge and palatial and there seems to be no-one in it!   But once I got into meeting and court rooms some of the differences with the state system disappear.  And the Chief Judge of the district court of Oregon, Ann Aiken, was a case in point.  This is a judge who attracted my attention when I came across a video of her presenting at a Reinvent Law Conference. She was passionate about the power of the re-entry programme she set up to help offenders turn their lives around, and sought help from the tech community to better use data.  She spoke like no judge I had ever met.  When I got the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust travel fellowship, I immediately contacted Judge Aiken and asked if I could visit her re-entry court.  Unfortunately timing didn’t work out for me to visit the Eugene re-entry court but I did meet her and observed another reentry court.  She was as passionate in the flesh as on the video, and convinced that her success was due to her determination to innovate and to exert positive influence on the wider criminal justice system.  She gave a great example of how she had tried to help offenders in her home town where she was then a state court judge.  She did many family cases and was struck by the need of the families she saw for better childcare – both for the development of the children themselves and for the parents’ education in parenting skills.  The Relief Nursery in Eugene met that need – it offered ” therapeutic early childhood services and comprehensive family support, including alcohol & drug recovery support services”. So Judge Aiken rung up the manager and asked if there were nursery places for the children whose cases she was dealing with.  The answer was a resounding no.  The nursery was full and had a waiting list of children, all with high needs.  But Judge Aiken isn’t the type to take no for an answer, when she thinks there is a way through which help stop the cycle of abuse and offending.  She resolved to help build the capacity of the nursery through offering her time on the committee planning a new building.  As a judge she couldn’t fund-raise herself, but she could and did spread the word about the important work the nursery did.  Needless to say the nursery got the money, and they began to lay the groundwork for the building when Ann’s first child was three days old.  The new building had room for more children, including those involved in the justice system. This example shows how a committed, energetic judge in USA can get things done which benefit justice, but which are not strictly justice services.  Not all US judges can be bothered, but if a judge has the energy and commitment, there is nothing to stop them.