SALEM — The state’s first African-American member of the state Supreme Court became interested in the law when her mother went to court to stop a high school in Arkansas for skipping over her daughter for valedictorian because she was black.

Gov. Kate Brown announced on Tuesday that she will appoint Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Adrienne Nelson to the Oregon Supreme Court. Nelson replaces retiring judge Jack Landau. The appointment is effective immediately.

The seven Supreme Court justices are elected. Nelson will have to run for a full six-year term in the November general election, if she wishes to remain on the court.

“Judge Nelson brings to our highest court an important, new voice and wealth of experience she has gained in 12 years on the trial bench,” Brown said. “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 under-served communities in our state. Judge Nelson is a widely respected civil rights champion, whose perspective on the bench moves us closer to our shared vision of justice for all.”

Nelson grew up in Arkansas and went to high school in the town of Gurdon, in the southwestern part of the state. Though she had the highest grade-point average of any student in her graduating class, school officials skipped over her and chose a white student as valedictorian. Nelson’s mother went to court and her daughter was eventually named valedictorian prior to graduation.

Nelson attended the University of Arkansas, then received her law degree from the University of Texas. She moved to Oregon in 1994, working as a public defender, in private practice, and as a senior attorney for Portland State University. She was appointed to the circuit court by Gov. Ted Kulongoski in 2006.

Nelson explained her approach to the courtroom during an interview last September with PDX Monthly.

“In court, I try to treat everyone with some dignity and respect,” she told the magazine. “I explain things to them, and I make eye contact with them — so they know I am paying attention. It makes a world of difference. The facts of a case can be ugly. There’s no getting around that. But I have to find a way to communicate without being repelled, because people have a right to legal representation, a right to legal process, and the system has to work a certain way.”

Judge Nelson has received the Multnomah Bar Association’s Award of Merit. She is active in the American Bar Association, Oregon Bar Association and Oregon Women Lawyers groups. She is on the Reed College Board of Trustees, and is adjunct professor at Lewis & Clark Law School. Nelson is board chair of Self Enhancement, Inc., and sits on the Oregon Community Foundation Metropolitan Portland Leadership Council.

— Reporter: 541-525-5280, gwarner@bendbulletin.com

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