Former Hillsboro attorney brings majority women to Oregon supreme court
When the Oregon Supreme Court gavels in to start its next session, it will mark a quiet milestone few Oregonians will notice.
Gov. Kate Brown appointed Appeals Court Judge Rebecca Duncan to the bench in May. Duncan will join Chief Justice Thomas Balmer and fellow Associate Justices Rives Kistler, Martha Lee Walters, Lynn Nakamoto, Jack Landau and Meagan Aileen Flynn. For the first time in the state's history, a majority of the justices will be women.
"I suppose it is historic," Duncan said last week, speaking to the Tribune. "It's a barrier that has come down. And it's a court that better reflects the community it serves."
Oregon isn't the first state with a women-majority high court. And, in fact, the transition from a male-dominated court came very quickly.
Three of the four women came to the high court within the last year and a half — Nakamoto was appointed to the bench in 2016 and Flynn was appointed in April 2017. Like Duncan, both had served on the Oregon Court of Appeals.
Path runs through Washington County
Duncan received her undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her law degree from the University of Michigan Law School. She moved to Oregon where, in 1996, where she joined the Metropolitan Public Defender's office for Multnomah and Washington counties. She became a defense attorney for Washington County, working in Hillsboro, where she represented people before the Oregon Court of Appeals and Oregon Supreme Court.
Duncan saw plenty of women on the bench, even then, citing Judge Gayle Nachtigal, who retired in 2013 as Washington County's most senior judge, among others.
She served as assistant chief defender in the Office of Public Defense Services for nearly a decade. In 2010, Gov. Ted Kulongoski named her to the Oregon Court of Appeals, where she continues to serve until taking the High Court bench this summer.
Duncan lives in Keizer with her husband and two daughters.
Having a woman-majority on the "court of last resort" — not all states use the title "Supreme Court" — is intrinsically important, Duncan said.
"Diversity is good for democracy," she said. "It's law by the people, for the people."
But reaching this milestone has taken longer than she might have liked. When Duncan was a law student in the 1980s, about 40 percent of students were women. But since the 1990s, nearly half of all law students, nationwide, have been women.
"There's been a bit of lag," Duncan added, laughing.
And she's pleased to be the one who helps breach this latest milestone.
"We've moved past the point were jobs are out of someone's reach because of their gender," she said. "Hopefully, we'll reach a point where nobody will be surprised by seeing diversity in judges, whether it's cultural or gender or language."
Still, she said, milestones persist. Oregon has seven offices elected statewide, and woman now hold only two of them: Gov. Kate Brown and Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum.
Another 'glass ceiling' broken
At the Oregon State Bar convention in 1988, several regional groups of women lawyers came together and decided to create a statewide consortium. Among the group was Rosenblum. The association of Oregon Women Lawyers, or OWLS, was created.
Rosenblum wasn't a judge then — that would come a year and a half later — but she was there at the founding of OWLS. She said one of the goals, from the very start, was to get more women into the pipeline for judgeships at the municipal, district and appellate levels.
Breaking barriers was the goal. Rosenblum broke some of those herself, and today, she is Oregon's attorney general — the first woman to hold that position.
Speaking of Duncan's appointment to the high court, Rosenblum said the lack of statewide fanfare isn't surprising.
"It's largely symbolic but that's OK. Milestones can be symbolic," Rosenblum said. "It almost doesn't seem like a big deal because this is Oregon, and we're used to (breaking barriers)."
The Multnomah County Circuit Court has a female majority of three-to-two, she pointed out.
The milestone is important, Rosenblum added, for two reasons: It's good for the rule of law, and it's a good message for up-and-coming women attorneys.
Courts should reflect the people who depend on them, she said, and all diversity is good: gender, ethnicity, language and even the regions of Oregon represented by the justices.
But the quality of the judiciary is independent of its diversity, Rosenblum added.
"All seven of ours represent what we're looking for in judges," Rosenblum said. "They're just great."
And how will Duncan fit in?
"She's a beautiful legal writer," Rosenblum said. "She's one of the best writers I've ever known."
Rosenblum said a woman-majority court sends a positive message within the business of law, too. When she studied law at the University of Oregon, the faculty included exactly one female law professor — an adjunct faculty member, no less, who taught family law.
What does the appointment of Duncan mean to current law school students, or those thinking about law school?
"I can't speak for current students, but if (Oregon had more women on the bench) when I was a student, it would have spoken volumes for me," Rosenblum said. "I had to look — really look — for mentors when I was in college."
Next generation of attorneys
Amy Saack of Hillsboro is a law school student who graduated May 27 from Lewis & Clark Law School.
There's no question that seeing women on the bench, at the trial and appellate levels, has been an encouragement. "It says to me: These goals are attainable. And I think having so many women on the bench was unimaginable one or two decades ago."
The 28-year-old once had a job as a secretary at a police station in Washington County. As the files for felony cases came across her desk, she read them and thought: "Law, that's something I could do."
Now that she's ready to launch her career in Oregon, Saack said she's pleased by the gender diversity on the bench.
"I think diversity means a more complete discussion of the issues, and that leads to better rulings," Saack said.
"No matter who you are, what this says to all women in Oregon is that our voices will be heard in the Oregon court system," she added. "That's so important."
Meanwhile, the work to diversity the bench continues. Attorney Kate Wilkinson of Salem said OWLS created a judicial endorsement group in 2002 with the intended goal of creating diversity for trial courts, the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court.
That work continues, she said, and not just on the bench. Nationwide, women still represent far too small a percentage of partners in major law firms; too small a percentage of deans of law school; too small a percentage of general counsels for Fortune 500 companies.
Wilkinson said she is pleased by this latest Oregon milestone.
"As a trial lawyer, it makes a huge difference to see a woman up there," she said. "It's a huge revolution."
With more to come.
Rosenblum noted that Oregon hasn't had a female chief justice yet.
"Some things take a while," she said. "But it's about time. Right?"