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Judge Lynn Nakamoto: Justice for all

First minority woman joins Oregon Supreme Court


PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JAIME VALDEZ - Lynn Nakamoto in the Oregon Supreme Court Building, where she has served as Associate Justice since Jan. 1.When Lynn Nakamoto came to Oregon three decades ago, she had not secured a job or a home.

Dr. Jocelyn White, then her partner, was completing medical school at New York University and seeking a residency. Nakamoto, a couple of years out of NYU law school, was at Bronx Legal Services.

“I wanted to leave New York City,” recalled Nakamoto, now a Cedar Mill resident. “I was done. It’s a hard way of life. Everything about daily life there is a lot harder than on the West Coast. I knew it would be better on the West Coast, and my family is here.”

When White was accepted by the internal medicine program at Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center, Nakamoto’s first task was to find an apartment nearby in Northwest Portland.

White is still at Good Samaritan as medical director of palliative and hospice care for Legacy.

White is also the wife of Nakamoto, whose own jobs led to her appointment by Gov. Kate Brown as the first Asian American — and the first woman from any minority group — on the Oregon Supreme Court. She began her role there in January.

White helped Nakamoto don her judicial robe in the Supreme Court chambers in Salem, where a ceremony was held a few weeks after Nakamoto started as a justice. They have an adopted daughter from Vietnam, now 17 and college-bound.

A speaker at the ceremony referred to the U.S. Supreme Court justices whom Nakamoto sees as her models. They are Sonia Sotomayor, who grew up in the Bronx where Nakamoto once worked, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a leader in the legal fight for women’s rights.

“Like Justice Ginsburg, she has shown that leadership is not about being the loudest advocate. It’s about being effective,” Portland lawyer Elisa Dozono said.

Nakamoto succeeds Virginia Linder, who retired Dec. 31 after nine years on the court.

Nakamoto took part in litigation resulting in a landmark decision by the Court of Appeals, which ruled in 1998 that same-sex couples have equal access to benefits that a public agency offers to opposite-sex couples — and that employers cannot discriminate based on sexual orientation. She was a co-counsel in Oregon’s first legal challenge to a same-sex marriage ban back in 2004, although the Supreme Court decided that Multnomah County lacked legal authority to issue 3,000 marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

“But for the LGBT communities, 30 years ago was a different time,” Nakamoto said.

She has filed for election May 17 to a full six-year term in the nonpartisan position.

Do race or sexual orientation still matter when the United States has an African American president — a lawyer himself — and marriage by same-sex couples is legal in all states?

“It’s a hard question,” she replied. “I think things are getting incrementally better.”

“There has to be a first, and I am proud to be the first,” she adds. “I hope there are many who come after me. I think being on the court helps other lawyers realize they have an equal shot at it.”

Into the law

Nakamoto grew up in Southern California and went to Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where she majored in philosophy.

“My father was saying: What is that? Then I started thinking: What am I going to do?” she recalls.

She spent her junior year (1980-81) at the University of California at Berkeley, where she took a class in public-interest law. The class was taught by Mary Dunlap, a civil rights lawyer who later became director of San Francisco’s independent police watchdog agency.

“The way she looked at law to do good things really was eye-opening,” Nakamoto said.

Upon her return to Wellesley, Nakamoto took a prelaw course — which brought her into Boston’s trial courts — and also learned about how African Americans obtained equal rights through the courts.

After graduation in 1982, Nakamoto went to NYU law school, where one of her courses was taught by an adjunct professor active in gay and lesbian rights litigation. The school also had a program in what was then the emerging field of public-interest law.

She earned her law degree in 1985 and was hired by Bronx Legal Services, where she had served as a law clerk after her second year.

After coming to Oregon in 1987, Nakamoto first worked at Marion-Polk Legal Aid Services.

Although the clients were different — primarily African American and Hispanic in the Bronx, primarily white in the mid-Willamette Valley — and so were some of their problems, Nakamoto said they shared a common bond.

Many of those cases dealt with employment, public benefits and housing.

A year after Nakamoto started work in Salem, Jeffrey Edelson joined the Marion-Polk agency, and they often commuted together from Portland to Salem.

Edelson recalls they argued in a Polk County case that the cost of deferred filing fees for poor defendants in civil suits was tantamount to a denial of justice.

“We got our way, and it was a victory for the good guys,” he said.

Edelson left in 1989 for a clerkship with a U.S. magistrate judge in Portland, and at his suggestion, Nakamoto took a summer clerkship with U.S. District Judge Helen Frye.

Private practice

Edelson informed Nakamoto about a one-year position available at the Portland firm of Markowitz Herbold starting in fall 1989.

“I though I would try it and see whether I liked it,” she said.

But she was unsure she would be in private practice beyond a year. She worked on business litigation and civil appeals at Markowitz Herbold, which is considered a mid-size law firm.

Although it was a change from her previous work in legal aid, Nakamoto said there are similarities.

“It’s all about getting problems for your clients solved as efficiently as you can,” she said.

Edelson joined the firm two years later and is now a shareholder. Nakamoto rose to become its managing partner.

Working for diversity

In her early years at the firm, Nakamoto said she noticed one big difference between the Oregon and New York legal worlds.

Of about 100 people at a continuing legal education course she attended on business litigation, “I was the only person of color in the room — and I thought, 'This is really different.'”

She began to work for diversity among Oregon’s lawyers. She was a founder of the Oregon Minority Lawyers Association in 1991, and she led the affirmative action (now diversity) committee of the Oregon State Bar in 2006. Since 2012, she has been active in the bar’s mentoring program for new lawyers.

Her name is also on an annual award by the Oregon Asian Pacific American Bar Association.

During those years, Nakamoto was a founder of Asian Pacific Islander Lesbians and Gays — now API Pride — and sat on the board of Portland’s Q Center, an LGBT community center.

Elisa Dozono, now a partner in the Portland firm Miller Nash, says Nakamoto is a mentor to students aspiring to the law or other careers.

“She makes them feel that every day is an opportunity to learn something new,” Dozono said.

Nakamoto began to work for more diversity among Oregon’s judges which features only a handful from minority groups.

“Occasionally people would suggest that I put my name in for a position,” she said, but she would beg off because of family or other responsibilities. “Eventually I just thought I should step up.”

Nakamoto said there’s a risk for minority-group lawyers seeking to go on the bench.

“Candidates of color will not step up if they think nothing is going to happen, or their chances are low,” she said.

Court of Appeals

She had been at her firm 21 years and was serving as its managing partner when in late 2010, Gov. Ted Kulongoski appointed her to the Oregon Court of Appeals to succeed Jack Landau, who was elected to the Oregon Supreme Court.

The appeals court expanded from 10 to 13 judges in 2013, and it is one of the nation’s busiest intermediate-level courts. Cases are usually decided by three-judge panels.

Unlike the Supreme Court, which has discretion over the cases it chooses to review, the Court of Appeals hears virtually all appeals from circuit courts and state agencies, and decides them largely based on whether the law was properly applied. Criminal and juvenile matters account for about 60 percent of the court’s workload.

“Every judge decides about 50 to 60 cases per month, so you can imagine all the pages of briefing” from both sides, Nakamoto said. “At the same time you are assigned to write opinions, you have conferences to attend, and you are reading opinions drafted by other judges. It leaves surprisingly few workdays in a month to draft your own opinions and circulate them.”

But Judge David Schuman, whose final years on the appeals court coincided with Nakamoto’s first years, said he noticed something in her right away.

Schuman, who led the panel Nakamoto sat on, said her work product compared favorably with that from more experienced judges “including me,” despite her never previously having been a judge.

Although appellate judges make themselves familiar with the arguments raised by both sides, Schuman said, Nakamoto also delved deeply into the legal underpinnings for those arguments.

Schuman added: “She has the uncanny ability to confront a complex legal problem and discern exactly where the unnoticed question lies — the answer to which will drive the outcome, although it may not be obvious to people before she points it out.”