Adrienne Nelson: Following her oath
Adrienne Nelson is barely unpacked, and now it's time to move.
A decade-plus veteran on the local circuit court, Judge Nelson was recently re-assigned a "penthouse" courtroom on the seventh floor of the Multnomah County Courthouse in downtown Portland.
On Thursday, Jan. 4, most of her office supplies were still boxed up. It's good timing. After a nod from Gov. Kate Brown, Nelson will soon sit on the state Supreme Court in Salem.
The Outlook spoke with Nelson to learn what it's like to be the first African American to serve on Oregon's highest court in its 158-year history.
OUTLOOK: In 2007, you were the only African-American judge in the state court system. Have things changed?
NELSON: Gov. (Ted) Kulongoski really did diversify the bench with his judicial appointments, and Gov. (John) Kitzhaber — I don't know his record.
But I know Kulongoski. You can look at the (pictures) of the presiding judges on the wall on the second floor of our courthouse and see the number of diverse faces. Women, men, different ethnicities and there were more openly-gay judges appointed. Governor Brown has taken on that mantel and built upon it.
OUTLOOK: Why is diversity important?
NELSON: The judiciary needs to be reflective of the communities we serve. It helps with people having trust and confidence in our legal system — a sense of fairness.
OUTLOOK: Your mother sued the local school district — her own employer — after administrators decided you couldn't be valedictorian because you were black. What was that like?
NELSON: She's never shared with me how it felt for her. Because she was a mom, and being protective and supportive of her child, I don't think she gave it a lot of thought about what harm it might do to her.
OUTLOOK: How did you feel?
NELSON: It was very difficult. I was young, barely 18, and I was in the middle of this controversy. I was trying to navigate very emotional issues, and people were seeing me in a very different way than I thought they did.
But I was grateful that I had a strong family support system, strong community support and was able to navigate that with some grace and dignity.
OUTLOOK: Did that experience affect your own legal career?
NELSON: You learn to deal with people the way they are … (But) I wanted to be better than that.
I wanted to not be naive — there are challenges in this world — but how I deal with people, and how I connect with people on a human level, is my responsibility.
I believe in the rule of law, and following my oath, but I do think we've lost our ability to be kind and connect with one another.
OUTLOOK: Should judges comment on current affairs and politics?
NELSON: I definitely feel like I'm a part of the community, that's why I sit on a number of boards, because I want to give back. That doesn't mean that I want to be politically engaged, because I think that's activism and that's not appropriate.
Each judge has their own perspective on how visible or how connected they want to be. I'm on the higher end, for a number of reasons.
OUTLOOK: What's the secret to becoming an Oregon Supreme Court justice?
NELSON: There's an application. You have to self-nominate, if you will.
It's not like the governor has a group of people that she's looking at. You apply, you interview, you go through several processes, and it gets smaller as you go through the process.
OUTLOOK: Do you have a favorite type of case?
NELSON: I like it all. I started as a public defender, so I've always been in court, and then switched into private practices on the plaintiff side — civil work. I ended up going into essentially the equivalent of a law office for students at Portland State. I've had a variety of experiences before coming to the bench.
OUTLOOK: What do you do for fun?
NELSON: I'm a huge theater buff.
I'm going to see "Hamilton" in March. I'm so excited about the fact that a whole generation — generations, really — are being engaged in our Constitution. It's important for people to understand what our country is based on.
JUST THE FACTS:
Name: Adrienne Nelson
Location: Has lived in the suburbs east of Portland for 10 years
Education: Studied English and criminal justice at the University of Arkansas, studied law at the University of Texas
On her nightstand: "We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy" by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Next job: Judge at the state Supreme Court in Salem. "I'm looking forward to the drive," she says.