Justice Nelson was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and grew up in southwest Arkansas with a brother, raised next door to her grandparents by her mother and stepfather. She was the first African American valedictorian of her high school since integration. Her mother retained a civil rights lawyer in order for her to receive her earned academic rank.
Justice Nelson graduated from the University of Arkansas with a bachelor of arts degree, summa cum laude, with double majors in criminal justice and English. She was very active in college and excelled academically as evidenced by her being inducted in Phi Beta Kappa and Mortar Board. She then completed her law degree at the University of Texas School of Law.
After a stint as a contract analyst for an insurance company, Justice Nelson worked as a public defender in Portland, Oregon, with Multnomah Defenders, Inc., a nonprofit public interest law firm, for almost three years.
Then she spent five years with the Portland law firm of Bennett, Hartman, Morris & Kaplan.
She served as the senior attorney/coordinator of the Student Legal and Mediation Services at Portland State University.
In 2006, the governor of Oregon appointed Justice Nelson as a judge on the Multnomah County Circuit Court. When she received that appointment at age 39, she was the only African American judge in the entire Oregon state court system and only the second African American female judge in the entire state. She was elected to a new six-year term in 2012.
Justice Nelson was appointed to serve as an associate justice on the Oregon Supreme Court in January 2018. She won election in November 2018 to a full six-year term.
Justice Nelson has been very active in the legal community. She is a frequent speaker on a number of topics including diversity, increasing equality, leadership, and professional development. She shares a deep commitment to the rule of law and to the legal profession.
Currently, she serves on the ABA Standing Committee on Public Education (an appointment by the ABA president) and is the Oregon delegate to the ABA House of Delegates. Previously, she has been elected seven times as an Oregon State Bar delegate to the ABA House of Delegates. She earlier served on the ABA Commission on Disability Rights.
She was a member of the ABA Law Practice Management Magazine Board and was a member of the ABA Gavel Awards Standing Committee.
She has also served as president of the Multnomah Bar Foundation and president of the Oregon State Bar Foundation Board.
Justice Nelson is also an active member of the Oregon Minority Lawyers Association, the Oregon Chapter of the National Bar Association, and Oregon Women Lawyers. She is a past president of Queen’s Bench, the Portland Chapter of Oregon Women Lawyers; her tenure as president marked the first time Queen’s Bench had a woman of color as its leader.
Justice Nelson sits on the Reed College Board of Trustees, the Self-Enhancement, Incorporated (SEI) Board of Directors, the Girl Scouts Beyond Bar Advisory Board, and the Oregon Community Foundation Metropolitan Portland Leadership Council, where she chairs the outreach to the Black Community Committee. She is a tireless encourager and connector helping people succeed by living their best lives.
Honors and Recognitions
Justice Nelson has received many accolades for her service to the legal profession and the community.
Justice Nelson is a past recipient of the Multnomah Bar Association’s Award of Merit and the Oregon State Bar’s Diversity and Inclusion Award.
She received the Oregon Women Lawyers Judge Mercedes Deiz Award in 2003 for promotion of women and minorities in the legal profession and in the community, and the Oregon State Bar President’s Public Service Award in 2007.
Justice Nelson has been named a Lewis and Clark Law School distinguished honorary graduate for her mentoring and diversity activities at the school.
When Oregon Governor Kate Brown appointed Justice Nelson to the Oregon Supreme Court, she noted that Justice Nelson “has made extraordinary strides to make the trial bench more receptive to the needs and experiences of diverse and underserved communities in our state.” She further said, “Judge Nelson is a widely respected civil rights champion, whose perspective on the bench moves us closer to our shared vision of justice for all.”