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


Dorothy W. Nelson is a Senior Judge, United States Court of Appeals 9th Circuit and Chair and Founder of Western Justice Center Foundation, Pasadena, CA.

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   LAW STAR                                                                                    1. 800.973.1177

                            Dorothy W. Nelson: Senior Judge, United States Court
                            of Appeals 9 th Circuit and Chair and Founder of Western
                            Justice Center Foundation, Pasadena, CA
                            [By Kenneth Davis]
                            Judge Dorothy Nelson has set the legal world ablaze, excelling in a number of different areas of law. However, she
                            didn’t originally plan to make a career in the legal field. Her decision to go into law happened unexpectedly and was
                            motivated by a desire to help others.

“My first inclination was to be a social           improvement of juror pay, and the keeping of      “I began teaching about mediation and
worker,” she said. “After World War II, when I     court statistics.                                 arbitration and other forms of appropriate
was leader of a boys’ club for underprivileged                                                       dispute resolution (ADR-some say alternative
eight-year olds, I found that when I observed      Nelson went on to receive her Master of           dispute resolution) in the early 960s before
and complained to authorities about their          Laws degree from the University of Southern       it was being taught elsewhere.”
special needs (health, food, parental              California Law School in 956. The following
inadequacies), I was told that ‘the law            year she joined the school’s faculty to           As interim dean in 967, Nelson helped
says this or that.’ I decided that…lawyers         become USC’s first woman law professor.           establish a dispute resolution center at USC
appeared to have the inside edge.”                 During her tenure as law professor, she           Law School. She said it was the first dispute
                                                   was also involved in number of other law-         resolution center in a law school anywhere in
Nelson, 77, added that she wanted to be in a       related activities. She was involved in private   the country. Nelson also assisted in founding
profession that aims “to serve other people.”      practice, handling family, juvenile, and          a number of other organizations.
                                                   adoption matters. She also formed two major
“Lawyers have the training and skills to           corporations, Woolstone, Inc. and California      “While Dean, we established the Western
bring about real change in society and assist      Limestone, and did all their legal work. In       Center on Law and Poverty (in conjunction
others,” she said.                                 addition, she served on the Federal Indigent      with UCLA and Loyola Law Schools); the
                                                   Defense Panel and wrote trusts and wills.         Chicano Law Center; the Center on Law and
After receiving her bachelor’s degree in                                                             Aging (with the School of Gerontology); and
political science from UCLA in 950, Nelson        “But teaching and writing were my main            the Center for Preventive Law, etc., etc.,” she
set about launching her legal career. In           activities,” she said.                            said.
953, she earned her law degree from
UCLA School of Law and was admitted to             Nelson thrived at USC Law School. She was         In 985, Nelson and a group of attorneys
the State Bar of California the following          named its interim dean in 967 and dean in        and judges established the Western Justice
year. For her first job out of law school,         969, becoming the first woman dean of a          Center Foundation. The initial plan was to
she worked as a research associate at the          major American law school. After Nelson           make use of the bungalows adjoining the 9th
University of Southern California Law School.      served ten years as dean, President Jimmy         Circuit Courthouse in Pasadena and place
She worked alongside USC law professor             Carter appointed her to the United States         tenants there that would be compatible to
James Holbrook on a project to investigate         Court of Appeals 9th District in 979. She        the courthouse.
the courts in Los Angeles and recommend            assumed senior status on the court in 995.
improvements. The study, which took three                                                            “When the bungalows we were in were
years to complete, was titled “Survey of           In addition to her academic and judicial          designated surplus property in 985, and
Metropolitan Courts—Los Angeles Area.”             trailblazing, Nelson was one of the early         Chief Judge [James R.] Browning asked
                                                   proponents of alternative dispute resolution      Judge [Anthony M.] Kennedy [now a U.S.
“We recommended 32 changes…to the State            and believed that mediation was a viable          Supreme Court Justice] to come up with
Legislature, most of which were adopted,”          alternative to litigation.                        ideas for compatible tenants, the idea for
she said.                                                                                            the Western Justice Center Foundation was
                                                   “As a member of the Baha’i Faith, I believe       born,” she said. “Judge Kennedy went off
Nelson added that some of those changes            that one of the best ways to resolve conflict     to Washington, D.C.; and I asked a group
included the creation of a Court Executive         is through consultation or mediation rather       of prominent lawyers and judges to join
Officer, the consolidation of courts, the          than the adversary system,” she said.             me in forming a nonprofit corporation

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   LAW STAR                                                                                      1. 800.973.1177

called the Western Justice Center                 “It is tremendously rewarding to help               She said that some of the most difficult
Foundation to develop a research center           people and groups resolve conflict of all           challenges she faces as an appellate judge
to promote peaceful resolution of conflict        kinds through consultation, mediation, and          are having a “heavy caseload, [not] having
among children, courts, community and             dialogue,” said Nelson, whose goal is “to           enough time to do adequate research when
government.”                                      always have a win-win situation rather than a       briefs are not as good as they should be, and
                                                  win-lose situation.”                                balancing public-service demands on my
Nelson said that when she was a dean at                                                               time with court and family demands.”
USC Law School, she had always wanted to          Nelson, who is also chair of the 9th Circuit’s
develop such a center in the western part of      Alternative Dispute Resolution Committee,           Nelson said that she considers the most
the United States.                                said that her biggest influences have been          important issue facing the legal community
                                                  Roscoe Pound, former dean of Harvard Law            today to be giving the community access to a
“In the words of former Chief Justice Burger,     School, her husband and her religion the            justice system, not necessarily courts, that
litigation is fine for some cases, but to think   Bahai’i Faith, which she said teaches the           will provide a fair resolution of disputes and
it is appropriate for all cases is a mistake,”    principle of consultation to resolve conflict.      solve problems.
she said. “Our adversary system is too
costly, too inefficient, too painful, and too     As an appellate judge, Nelson sits on the           Nelson advised law students to get involved
destructive for a civilized society.”             bench one week in a month and hears 30              in their communities.
                                                  to 35 cases, which last 0 to 20 minutes
Since its founding, the Western Justice           per side. She writes opinions during the            “Become active in your community so that
Center Foundation has developed a number          remainder of the month. She said that she           you will understand its needs; and mold
of programs designed to teach peaceful            and the other appellate judges hear a variety       your aspirations to bringing about peaceful
conflict resolution to children, youth,           of cases.                                           resolution to conflict, which will lead
parents, teachers, administrators and                                                                 ultimately to a peaceful society,” she said.
community members. Included among these           “We handle everything from serious
programs are the Children’s Workshop,             criminal cases (capital cases, drug cases,          ON THE NET
Models of Unity Program, Court Workshops,         rape, robbery, murder, pornography, etc.)
Peer Mediation Invitational and Creative          to immigration cases, constitutional law            Western Justice Center Foundation
Classroom Management, which Nelson                cases, commercial cases, employment       
said is “for K-6 teachers to infuse conflict      discrimination cases, environmental cases,
resolution education throughout the               Clean Water Act cases, Voting Rights cases,         Pasadena Police Department
curriculum and to maximize child-centered         etc.,” she said.                          
problem solving.”
                                                  Nelson said that what she likes most about          UCLA School of Law
Recently, the Foundation collaborated with        being an appellate judge is that she is able to
the Pasadena Police Department and the            contribute to making the “American judicial
Los Angeles County Bar Association Dispute        system the best in the world and being able
Resolution Services to launch a mediation         to significantly affect the lives of others.” She
and dialogue program designed to improve          added that she also really likes working with
relationships between the police department       her law clerks.
and the community. The program provides
an opportunity for citizens and members of        “I enjoy my three law clerks immensely as
the Pasadena Police Department to engage          one of the best parts of the job,” she said.
in open dialogue through mediation sessions.      “They come from outstanding law schools
It combines individual mediations of citizen      and assist in my research and writing and
complaints against the police and larger          in preparing for my court calendars. They
dialogues between community members               are a source of continuing education for
and members of the Pasadena Police                me, for they have had courses with the most
Department.                                       prominent and accomplished law professors
                                                  in the Unites States.”


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