Justice Bronson James ’94, Justice and Trustee Emerita Adrienne Nelson, and Justice Christopher Garrett ’96 talk with students and alumni about their work as Oregon Supreme Court justices and the path to becoming a judge.
Justice Bronson James ’94, Justice and Trustee Emerita Adrienne Nelson, and Justice Christopher Garrett ’96 talk with students and alumni about their work as Oregon Supreme Court justices and the path to becoming a judge.

A Supreme Panel

“Take a breadth of coursework, follow your interests and passions,” Supreme Court justices tell Reedies.

By Amanda Waldoupe ’07 | October 5, 2023

Intellectual curiosity. Humility. Aspiration with no assured path.

This is, in part, what it takes to be a judge, as current Reed students learned during a panel discussion in September with two Reed alumni serving as justices on the Oregon Supreme Court and a former trustee serving as a federal judge in the U.S. District Court of Oregon.

The panel discussion took place as part of a fundraiser and happy hour at the Parker House. The event raised money for the Legal Education Access Fund (LEAF), which was created by the Reed Legal Network in 2019 to eliminate financial barriers Reedies may face when applying to law school.

Grants from LEAF are given to students with financial need. Funds can be used to pay fees associated with taking the LSAT, like the test fee, prep books, prep and tutoring classes, and score reports. Funds can also be used for law school application fees, visits to potential law schools, and even purchasing clothing to wear during visits and interviews.

“We don’t want students to turn away from considering law school, so that only those who can afford it can consider careers in the law,” said Alice Harra, Reed’s director of the Center for Life Beyond Reed (CLBR).

The panel featured Justice Bronson James ’94 and Justice Chris Garrett ’96, both of whom serve on the Oregon Supreme Court, and former Reed trustee, Adrienne Nelson, [Reed College Trustee Emerita, 2014–2023], who was appointed by the U.S. Senate earlier this year to be a federal judge in the U.S. District of Oregon.  Justice Rebecca Duncan, who attended Reed for 2 years, also serves on the Oregon Supreme Court. She was originally scheduled to participate but was unable to attend. 

Garrett, a political science major, credited a Constitutional Law course taught by Steven Kapsch [Emeritus Political Science Professor, 1974–2005] for inspiring his early interest in becoming a lawyer.

He told the two dozen students in attendance that “you cannot plan to be a judge.” In Oregon, judges are elected every four years; they are often appointed by the Governor. In Nelson’s case, she was nominated by President Joe Biden and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. 

“There is a political component,” Garrett went on. “You can have it as an aspiration to be a judge,” and planning certain aspects of one’s career can help a lawyer’s eventual application to be one. 

Lawyers are often seen as advocates—using their interpretation of the law, their oration in court, and persuasive, moving writing to make the best arguments for their client. But judges are neutral arbiters, someone “who can see all sides” of an issue or argument, Nelson said.

She emphasized the importance of temperament and conduct. “I have to remain neutral,” she said. “It is one thing to be passionate, but how you decide to articulate that and show up makes a difference.”

She shared how surprised she was when she learned that the vetting process during her confirmation involved asking “very personal” questions about her life “going back to age eighteen.” A Reed student’s social media posts? “Those will live forever,” she cautioned.   

Reflecting on the critical thinking, analysis, interpretation, research, and writing required in the job, James said that being a judge is like someone saying, “I will pay you to sit here and think about this.” He called that an “extraordinary, rare thing left in this world, and it is an incredible gift.”

“We work in the equivalent of the Reed College Library,” Garrett said to laughter.  

 “The law is nothing more than the codification in writing of how we want the world to be,” James said, “of how we want to treat each other, and how we want to order our society.”

The values and knowledge informing those decisions are all guided by philosophy, history, sociology, economics, psychology, and other disciplines taught at Reed. “Reed absolutely prepared me,” James said, for every stage of his career.

“Every major at Reed prepares you for the law,” said Darlene Pasieczny ’01, a member of the Reed Legal Network who helped create the LEAF. Closing out the evening, she said she and her fellow Legal Network members “kind of wish we had that kind of support” that LEAF provides “when we were students.” She added she may have prepped for the LSAT more, gotten a better score, and negotiated to receive more financial aid.

Since LEAF was created, $3,850 has been granted to 2 current students and 7 alumni. Of the alumni, two are currently in law school, two work as a paralegals or legal assistants, and one works as a consultant.

Harra said she hopes LEAF can regularly have $12,000 available to budget granting a total of $6,000 per year.  

If you would like to make a donation to LEAF, visit the Giving to Reed web page. 

Tags: Alumni, Life Beyond Reed