Judge Adrienne Nelson

Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Adrienne Nelson

Judge Nelson describes herself as a "people person." She loves talking and meeting with people. That trait is very obvious when you first meet her and are drawn in by her engaging smile and warm-hearted demeanor. Nelson also exudes confidence which was gained not so much by the position she recently achieved but by her good heart, her determination and some of the obstacles she endured to get there. She was appointed by Governor Kulongoski in 2006 to fill Judge Sidney Galton's vacant position on the Multnomah County Circuit Bench.

Judge Nelson was born and raised in Arkansas by her mother. Her father was killed by a drunk driver when she was an infant. Her mother, a school teacher, was adamant that Nelson and her brother be raised with a positive attitude about themselves, about others and about what they would achieve in life. Until her senior year in high school, Nelson toyed with one of two career options. She would be either a pediatrician or an attorney. Two things directed her toward the law. First, Nelson could not stand the smell of formaldehyde. Although she might have overcome that problem, an event that happened as she was getting ready to graduate from high school sealed her fate.

Nelson was enrolled in the gifted and talented program and had the highest grade point average of her 1985 high school graduating class. As one might expect, she was slated to be the valedictorian - the first valedictorian of color. Some school board members apparently were not ready for that. So, the board announced the honor would go to the very close runner-up, a white student. Nelson's mother would not hear of that. She decided to fight. She retained a local law firm and sued. In the end, the school principal resigned and Nelson received the honor she deserved. Nelson describes the entire experience as "awful and hard" but has never let it interfere with her determination to make the best out of every circumstance life throws at her.

After graduating from high school, Nelson attended the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, where she majored in English and Criminal Justice. She graduated summa cum laude. She then enrolled in the University of Texas at Austin where she earned her law degree. After graduating from law school in 1993, Nelson moved to Portland to be close to her mother, who had located here a few years earlier. It was important to both Nelson and her mother that Nelson's daughter be raised near her grandmother.

Nelson's first job was with Standard Insurance Company, where she worked as a contract analyst and a compliance analyst. Two years later she went to work at the Metro Public Defenders Office. She worked there for two and one-half years and then joined the Bennett, Hartman, Morris & Kaplan law firm, where she practiced mostly family and labor law. She then accepted the position as Senior Attorney in Student Legal and Mediation Services at Portland State University.

Judge Nelson is enjoying her work more than she ever imagined. She goes to work happy every day and leaves exhausted, but happy. Since being appointed to the bench, most of her work has involved criminal trials, including felonies and misdemeanors. She will gradually begin sitting for criminal trials and then civil trials. Although some training was provided, she gets most of her help by reading various manuals and bench books. Other, more experienced judges are a tremendous help to her and the attorneys appearing before her have also been very helpful.

What surprises her most is how jurors see their role in the legal system. Although some people see jury duty as an inconvenience, others see it as an honor and privilege. Most take it seriously. However, there is a significant number who vocalize their disagreement about how government works. Jurors frequently question the law and want to change it. For example, one juror said he wanted to know what the sentence was before deciding guilt.

Originally authored by Michael Lewton and printed in the July/August 2006 Multnomah Lawyer
Updated for the Internet in 2012