Oregon’s governor appointed Judge Adrienne Nelson to the state Supreme Court on Tuesday, making her the first African American to serve on the state’s highest court, The Oregonian reported. Nelson fought for racial equality and respect in her journey to the top.
“In addition to her work in the courtroom, she has made extraordinary strides to make the trial bench more receptive to the needs and experiences of diverse and underserved communities in our state,” Governor Kate Brown said, adding that Nelson is a “respected civil rights champion.”
Nelson, 51, is accustomed to being the only African American in the room. She was the only Black judge in Oregon’s court system of about 200 judges when the former governor placed her on the state’s circuit court bench. Nelson, a University of Texas Law School graduate, came to Oregon in 1994 to practice law. People around the courthouses often assumed she was a paralegal, social worker or the suspect’s girlfriend, she recalled.
The judge is no stranger to making history. She graduated at the top of her high school class in Gurdon, Arkansas. However, school officials gave the valedictorian award to the White student with the next highest GPA. After Nelson’s mother sued the school district, the future judge became the first Black valedictorian of her high school, she told The Portland Monthly.
In a state that’s just 2 percent Black, Nelson has used her authoritative voice to organize community gatherings where law enforcement leaders get the opportunity to listen to the experiences of residents of color. She has also given PowerPoint presentations at law firms about Oregon’s historic mistreatment of Black residents, which is often an uncomfortable conversation. That history includes the 1844 “Peter Burnett Lash Law,” which required Black people to leave the Oregon territory. Failure to comply resulted in a whipping of at least 20 lashes, repeated every six months until the Black person left. She is a past recipient of the Multnomah Bar Association’s Award of Merit and the Oregon State Bar’s Diversity and Inclusion Award.