Interview: Adrienne C. Nelson, first black justice on the Oregon Supreme Court

Judge Adrienne Nelson speaks to KATU News on Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018, a day after Gov. Kate Brown appointed her to the Oregon Supreme Court. Nelson is the first African-American to be appointed to the state's highest court. (KATU Photo)

Adrienne C. Nelson is the first African-American justice in the history of the Oregon Supreme Court.

Judge Nelson spoke to KATU News in a one-on-one interview the day after she was appointed by Gov. Kate Brown and before getting sworn in as a Supreme Court justice. She talked about what her historic appointment means to her personally, and how increased diversity in the justice system benefits everyone in the state.

Your thoughts on why it’s important to have minority representation at high levels in our justice system?

I think it’s important for people to understand that there’s not one type of person - or from one area, from one gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, racial ethnic background, religious background – that can sit as a justice. We are all capable and bright, and I was a judge that adhered to the rule of law for 12 years, and was a litigator before, and have the temperament, and hopefully gained the public’s trust and confidence by believing in access to justice, helping people understand how the law works, that would make me a good justice.

It makes a difference for people to see our courts and every level are reflective of the communities we serve. It is important, because it helps break down biases and stereotypes we may unintentionally have for one another, so it doesn’t seem unusual for somebody who you never would have thought in a certain position.

Since I’ve been on the bench at Multnomah County, I don’t have people coming to visit as much. But when I first came on the bench, I had people come in the courthouse just to see me sit, because they had not seen a black female judge -- ever. Or in a very, very, long time. I was the second black female judge in the state. Judge Mercedes Deiz was the first. She was the one that told me she hoped she lived long enough to see me get on the bench. She didn’t make that, but she was the first person who told me she thought I could be a judge - or told me that I was going to be a judge, and that I’d be a great judge. So, I hope I’m king of making her proud.

It’s important, because I see a lot of people come in [her courtroom], like I said, with pride, confirmation, saying things like, ‘I never thought I’d see this in my life’ or people saying, ‘You’ll never see me again. I’m proud of you.’ So, I know it does make a difference. And it’s an added responsibility to make sure that I do everything right, because I don’t want anyone to feel like they’re disappointed, or somehow I’m going to make it harder for someone else to come.

Seeing you as a judge probably causes some black kids to think, ‘That person is like me, I can be a judge too.’

I have a lot of students do that. I have a gavel on my bench that we don’t use every day, during any proceedings. I use it just for courtroom tours. And when I have students come in, I get off the bench and talk to them. Often, I’ll be in my robe, but I unzip my robe and they’re just amazed that I have clothes on like everybody else, up under it. And it kind of humanizes it, I’m a real person. And then they begin to talk to me, and then I invite them to come up and sit on my bench. And they sit there, and it’s just an amazing moment to watch them realize, they could do this. They might want to do this. And often that moment breaks from, when they first get up there and they start to look around, and I sit them in the chair, and I tell them, ‘Do you want to hit that gavel?’ And they just kind of spark. It’s just beautiful to see a young person see, that they have unlimited possibilities. And it’s just really a nice feeling and a nice moment for me to have, and it’s one that I always savor and reflect on once they leave. And then they begin to talk to me, you know, about people in their family, what they want to do, why they might want to do it, the other things they’re interested in. Often when I take them in my chambers, they see all my books, and they’re often very interested in the books. Do I read the books? Don’t read ‘em all at the same time – but they think that that’s cool, so it kind of opens up, ‘Oh, this wasn’t what I thought it was. This isn’t how it was on television, I can do this, and this is something I might want to consider.’ Because we need a variety of people to be in the field.

What does it mean to you, to be the person who is breaking down racial barriers in a state that has been noted for its lack of racial diversity?

I’m very grateful. I’m really appreciative of the opportunity that Governor Brown has afforded me. I realize that I’m going to do what I’ve always done, adhere to the rule of law, try and increase public trust and confidence. But I take it very seriously, what I do. And I know that I’m a neutral, so I’m not going to get up and have an activist position, but I do know that I feel like I’m a bridge. I’m going to be having conversations and bringing people to a common place where they can have those hard conversations to build an understanding, and to improve where we live. So, I feel like there’s a continuance that I’m going to be doing. I’m very proud of this moment. I’ve worked very hard, but it wasn’t something that I felt I was entitled to. I feel like this has been a gift of an opportunity, and I plan to take full advantage of it. I also know that I have a responsibility to represent the state well, not just my black community, not just women, but the entire Oregon community, because I’m an Oregonian. I moved here in ’94, I raised my daughter here, she’s now an adult, full-fledged, living her life. I feel like everyone is a part of me, and I want to bring my best self to my work.

Are you excited to tackle tougher, more complex issues as a justice on the Oregon Supreme Court?

Oh, yes. Yes. I am so excited about being able to really think about, dig deep into those issues, do the research, think about it, turn it every way I can, listen to my other colleges in the conference and hear their perspectives on the issue, and then come together to write an opinion. Hopefully we can all agree, if not, then we’ll have to figure out if they’re going to be concurrent opinions, dissenting opinions, whatever…But oh yes. I am extremely excited about this. I feel like I’m becoming a part of a dream that I’ve been hoping to have for a long time, and now it’s here. So, I hope it’s Groundhog Day for me, over and over and over and over again.

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