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The Life and Career of Dorothy W. Nelson: Senior Judge, United States Court of Appeals 9 Circuit and Chair and Founder of Western Justice Center Foundation, Pasadena, CA

published July 31, 2006

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My first inclination was to be a social worker," she said. "After World War II, when I was leader of a boys' club for underprivileged eight-year olds, I found that when I observed and complained to authorities about their special needs (health, food, parental inadequacies), I was told that 'the law says this or that.' I decided that…lawyers appeared to have the inside edge."

Nelson, 77, added that she wanted to be in a profession that aims "to serve other people."

"Lawyers have the training and skills to bring about real change in society and assist others," she said.

After receiving her bachelor's degree in political science from UCLA in 1950, Nelson set about launching her legal career. In 1953, she earned her law degree from UCLA School of Law and was admitted to the State Bar of California the following year. For her first job out of law school, she worked as a research associate at the University of Southern California Law School. She worked alongside USC law professor James Holbrook on a project to investigate the courts in Los Angeles and recommend improvements. The study, which took three years to complete, was titled "Survey of Metropolitan Courts—Los Angeles Area."

"We recommended 32 changes…to the State Legislature, most of which were adopted," she said.

Nelson added that some of those changes included the creation of a Court Executive Officer, the consolidation of courts, the improvement of juror pay, and the keeping of court statistics.

Nelson went on to receive her Master of Laws degree from the University of Southern California Law School in 1956. The following year she joined the school's faculty to become USC's first woman law professor. During her tenure as law professor, she was also involved in number of other law-related activities. She was involved in private practice, handling family, juvenile, and adoption matters. She also formed two major corporations, Woolstone, Inc. and California Limestone, and did all their legal work. In addition, she served on the Federal Indigent Defense Panel and wrote trusts and wills.

"But teaching and writing were my main activities," she said.

Nelson thrived at USC Law School. She was named its interim dean in 1967 and dean in 1969, becoming the first woman dean of a major American law school. After Nelson served ten years as dean, President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the United States Court of Appeals 9th District in 1979. She assumed senior status on the court in 1995.

In addition to her academic and judicial trailblazing, Nelson was one of the early proponents of alternative dispute resolution and believed that mediation was a viable alternative to litigation.

"As a member of the Baha'i Faith, I believe that one of the best ways to resolve conflict is through consultation or mediation rather than the adversary system," she said. "I began teaching about mediation and arbitration and other forms of appropriate dispute resolution (ADR-some say alternative dispute resolution) in the early 1960s before it was being taught elsewhere."

As interim dean in 1967, Nelson helped establish a dispute resolution center at USC Law School. She said it was the first dispute resolution center in a law school anywhere in the country. Nelson also assisted in founding a number of other organizations.

"While Dean, we established the Western Center on Law and Poverty (in conjunction with UCLA and Loyola Law Schools); the Chicano Law Center; the Center on Law and Aging (with the School of Gerontology); and the Center for Preventive Law, etc., etc.," she said.

In 1985, Nelson and a group of attorneys and judges established the Western Justice Center Foundation. The initial plan was to make use of the bungalows adjoining the 9th Circuit Courthouse in Pasadena and place tenants there that would be compatible to the courthouse.

"When the bungalows we were in were designated surplus property in 1985, and Chief Judge [James R.] Browning asked Judge [Anthony M.] Kennedy [now a U.S. Supreme Court Justice] to come up with ideas for compatible tenants, the idea for the Western Justice Center Foundation was born," she said. "Judge Kennedy went off to Washington, D.C.; and I asked a group of prominent lawyers and judges to join me in forming a nonprofit corporation called the Western Justice Center Foundation to develop a research center to promote peaceful resolution of conflict among children, courts, community and government."

Nelson said that when she was a dean at USC Law School, she had always wanted to develop such a center in the western part of the United States.

"In the words of former Chief Justice Burger, litigation is fine for some cases, but to think it is appropriate for all cases is a mistake," she said. "Our adversary system is too costly, too inefficient, too painful, and too destructive for a civilized society."

Since its founding, the Western Justice Center Foundation has developed a number of programs designed to teach peaceful conflict resolution to children, youth, parents, teachers, administrators and community members. Included among these programs are the Children's Workshop, Models of Unity Program, Court Workshops, Peer Mediation Invitational and Creative Classroom Management, which Nelson said is "for K-6 teachers to infuse conflict resolution education throughout the curriculum and to maximize child-centered problem solving."

Recently, the Foundation collaborated with the Pasadena Police Department and the Los Angeles County Bar Association Dispute Resolution Services to launch a mediation and dialogue program designed to improve relationships between the police department and the community. The program provides an opportunity for citizens and members of the Pasadena Police Department to engage in open dialogue through mediation sessions. It combines individual mediations of citizen complaints against the police and larger dialogues between community members and members of the Pasadena Police Department.

"It is tremendously rewarding to help people and groups resolve conflict of all kinds through consultation, mediation, and dialogue," said Nelson, whose goal is "to always have a win-win situation rather than a win-lose situation."

Nelson, who is also chair of the 9th Circuit's Alternative Dispute Resolution Committee, said that her biggest influences have been Roscoe Pound, former dean of Harvard Law School, her husband and her religion the Bahai'i Faith, which she said teaches the principle of consultation to resolve conflict.

As an appellate judge, Nelson sits on the bench one week in a month and hears 30 to 35 cases, which last 10 to 20 minutes per side. She writes opinions during the remainder of the month. She said that she and the other appellate judges hear a variety of cases.

"We handle everything from serious criminal cases (capital cases, drug cases, rape, robbery, murder, pornography, etc.) to immigration cases, constitutional law cases, commercial cases, employment discrimination cases, environmental cases, Clean Water Act cases, Voting Rights cases, etc.," she said.

Nelson said that what she likes most about being an appellate judge is that she is able to contribute to making the "American judicial system the best in the world and being able to significantly affect the lives of others." She added that she also really likes working with her law clerks.

"I enjoy my three law clerks immensely as one of the best parts of the job," she said. "They come from outstanding law schools and assist in my research and writing and in preparing for my court calendars. They are a source of continuing education for me, for they have had courses with the most prominent and accomplished law professors in the Unites States."

She said that some of the most difficult challenges she faces as an appellate judge are having a "heavy caseload, [not] having enough time to do adequate research when briefs are not as good as they should be, and balancing public-service demands on my time with court and family demands."

Nelson said that she considers the most important issue facing the legal community today to be giving the community access to a justice system, not necessarily courts, that will provide a fair resolution of disputes and solve problems.

Nelson advised law students to get involved in their communities.

"Become active in your community so that you will understand its needs; and mold your aspirations to bringing about peaceful resolution to conflict, which will lead ultimately to a peaceful society," she said.

published July 31, 2006

( 372 votes, average: 4.2 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.