A trailblazer on the state bench, Justice Adrienne Nelson is poised to become the first African American woman on the Oregon federal bench.
Born in Kansas City, Missouri, and raised in Arkansas, Nelson found her way into legal advocacy early, when her mother sued her school to permit Nelson to be the school’s valedictorian, instead of a white student with a lower GPA who was initially selected. See Eden Dawn, Meet Adrienne Nelson, the Second Black Female Judge in Oregon History, Portland Monthly, Sept. 13, 2017, https://www.pdxmonthly.com/news-and-city-life/2017/09/meet-adrienne-nelson-the-second-black-female-judge-in-oregon-history. Nelson subsequently graduated summa cum laude from the University of Arkansas in 1990 and got a J.D. from the University of Texas School of Law in 1993.
After graduation, Nelson moved to Portland, worked as a contract attorney and then as a public defender. After three years as a public defender, Nelson joined Bennett, Hardman, Morris & Kaplan LLP for five years and then joined Student Legal and Mediation Services.
In 2006, Governor Ted Kulongoski appointed Nelson to the Multnomah County Circuit Court. In 2018, Governor Kate Brown elevated Nelson to the Oregon Supreme Court, making her the first African American appellate judge in Oregon history. Nelson has served on the court since.
In 2011, while she was on the Multnomah County Circuit Court, Nelson was one of five candidates recommended by Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley to replace Judge Michael Hogan on the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon. Wyden and Merkley Send Names of Five Finalists for Federal Judgeship to the White House, States News Service, Mar. 6, 2012. The Obama Administration chose one of Nelson’s Multnomah County colleagues, Judge Michael McShane, for nomination, and McShane was confirmed in 2013.
History of the Seat
Nelson has been nominated for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon. This seat opened on December 27, 2021, when Judge Michael Mosman moved to senior status.
Nelson served as a Circuit Court Judge from 2006 to 2018. In this role, she served as a primary trial judge, supervising criminal and civil cases. For example, Nelson acquitted Mary Jo Pullen-Hughes for the charge of phone harassment, finding that there was not enough evidence of her intent to harass. OR Woman Acquitted of Phone Harassment of Feds, A.P. State & Local Wire, Mar. 1, 2010. Some of Nelson’s rulings have been appealed to the Oregon Court of Appeals and the Oregon Supreme Court. For example, the Oregon Supreme Court affirmed a ruling by Nelson precluding psychological testimony at trial after plaintiffs failed to deliver the reports prepared by their psychological expert during discovery. See A.G. v. Guitron, 268 P.3d 589 (Ore. 2011).
In contrast, the Oregon Court of Appeals reversed Nelson’s denials of motions to suppress in a number of cases, finding, in one case, that Nelson erred in finding that the defendant had no constitutional privacy interest in actions in a public restroom. See State v. Holiday, 310 P.3d 1149 (Ore. App. 2013). See also State v. Adams, 185 P.3d 570 (Ore. App. 2008) (reversing conviction where officer unlawfully stopped defendant without reasonable suspicion); State v. Chambers, 203 P.3d 337 (Ore. App. 2008) (holding that an officer’s detention of defendant was not justified under the community caretaker exception to the Fourth Amendment).
Since 2018, Nelson has been a member of the Oregon Supreme Court, serving as the court’s first African American member. See Andrew Selsky, In a First, African-American Named to Oregon Supreme Court, A.P. State & Local, Jan. 3, 2018.
Writings and Statements
Nelson has frequently spoken on the law at various legal events and symposiums throughout the state, as well as discussing her own rise to the bench. See, e.g., Eden Dawn, Meet Adrienne Nelson, the Second Black Female Judge in Oregon History, Portland Monthly, Sept. 13, 2017, https://www.pdxmonthly.com/news-and-city-life/2017/09/meet-adrienne-nelson-the-second-black-female-judge-in-oregon-history. Nelson’s unique background has also drawn media attention, and Nelson has been speculated as a potential nominee for the Supreme Court and the Ninth Circuit. Compare Andrew Kragie, Meet the Possible Nominees for Justice Breyer’s Seat, Law360, Jan. 26, 2022 with Andrew Kragie, Biden Gets 1st Opening on 9th Circ. Thanks to Judge Graber, Law360, Feb. 16, 2021.
After being considered as a potential nominee for both the Ninth Circuit and the Supreme Court, Judge Adrienne Nelson has now been tapped for the district court in Oregon. Based on her time in the Oregon legal community, it will be difficult to deny Nelson’s credentials for the position.