Oregon justices share experiences of sitting on majority-female - KPTV - FOX 12

Oregon justices share experiences of sitting on majority-female bench

Posted: Updated:
Justice Martha Lee Walters, Justice Lynn Nakamoto, Justice Rebecca Duncan and Justice Meagan Aileen Flynn will soon be joined on the Oregon Supreme Court by Judge Adrienne Nelson. (KPTV) Justice Martha Lee Walters, Justice Lynn Nakamoto, Justice Rebecca Duncan and Justice Meagan Aileen Flynn will soon be joined on the Oregon Supreme Court by Judge Adrienne Nelson. (KPTV)

For the first time in state history, there are more women than men sitting on the Oregon Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court is the state’s court of last resort and exists by virtue of the state constitution. The seven justices who sit on this bench have the ultimate responsibility of interpreting Oregon law.

Justice Rebecca Duncan was the female justice to tip the scale after being appointed to the bench by Governor Kate Brown in May of 2017.

Duncan told FOX 12 the fact that the majority of justices are women is very meaningful, not only for her and the other women on the court, but also for women and girls across the state.

“It sends the signal that times do change and progress can be made,” she said. “I heard from people who were incredibly excited, and there were people who had gone to law school, or where law school wasn’t even really an option for them at the time they were entering their professional lives just because of what was viewed as available career paths for women, and they were so excited to see what had been a limit no longer existing.”

Justice Martha Lee Walters, Justice Lynn Nakamoto and Justice Meagan Aileen Flynn said they too have heard similar stories since that momentous day.

“Everybody wants to know that they’re going to be heard if they appear before a court of law.  What’s the most important thing to them? That they’re going to be listened to, that they think they’re going to have a fair hearing,” Walters explained. “So, if people see people on the bench who they think are similar to them in some way, it makes them think, ‘Oh, there’s someone who I think will listen to me.’ So, we need to have great diversity.”

A fair hearing is of utmost importance to these justices, though that hearing is unlike what happens in most courtrooms. There is no jury, no presentation of evidence and no witnesses are heard. 

“By the time it gets to us, it’s very narrow, and we have to rely on what the factual findings were in the trial court,” Nakamoto said. “Then it’s really probably a dispute about one very small piece of the law.”

A ruling from the Supreme Court can impact all Oregon cases moving forward. That pressure, the justices said, challenges them to do their very best work when a case could hinge solely on their interpretation of the law.

“The law can only be written with so much detail, and we try to fill in the detail or give the interpretations when there are two different interpretations of it,” Walters said, adding when asked if words were important, “Yes, words are our life!”

To them, one word can change the outcome of an entire case.

“There have been times where I’ve done legislative history, and you’re listening to the reel to reel tapes, and you’ll hear the, you know, names of people who are later governors and they show up in the legislative history,” Duncan said.

“We listen to tapes because we're trying to figure out what did the legislature intend when they wrote this statute this way, what were they thinking,” Walters added.

“We’re not making policy,” Flynn said. “Policy is made by the legislature, or by the voters and we’re trying to understand and make sense of what policies have been made.”

The four justices say they are honored to sit on Oregon’s highest court and hope this historic appointment encourages other young women to pursue similar interests.

“It’s nice to see that women have now gotten into more senior positions,” Nakamoto said. “That they are in a position to be on a high court."

There will soon be a fifth female justice in Oregon after Governor Brown announced Monday that Judge Adrienne Nelson from the Multnomah County Circuit Court will be replacing the retiring Justice Jack Landau.

The four current justices also told FOX 12 they are hopeful that majority-female supreme courts will one day be nothing notable at all and instead will be common.

“I would love it if it someday it didn’t matter who you were when you got appointed to the court, if we got through that,” Flynn said.

Copyright 2018 KPTV-KPDX Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.

Powered by Frankly
FOX 12
Powered by WorldNow CNN
All content © 2018, KPTV-KPDX Broadcasting Corporation, Portland, OR . All Rights Reserved.
For more information on this site, please read our Privacy Policy, and Terms of Service, and Ad Choices.