Judge Dorothy Wright Nelson’s Prescient, Bold Vision of Justice


Vol. 107 No. 2 (2023) | Generative AI in the Courts
Judge Dorothy Wright Nelson

by Lisa Kloppenberg
Oxford University Press, 2022


I began reading Lisa Kloppenberg’s book, The Best Beloved Thing is Justice: The Life of Dorothy Wright Nelson, because of the great respect, affection, and admiration I have for my esteemed colleague, the Honorable Dorothy Nelson, senior circuit judge, Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. I continued reading this book because I became enthralled by the fascinating story of how her life and experiences primed her to firmly anchor alternative dispute resolution (ADR) within our modern legal system.

Kloppenberg, a former law clerk for Judge Nelson, does a masterful job of detailing the jurist’s personal and professional milestones, culminating in her trailblazing appointment to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals by President Jimmy Carter, at a time when only a handful of women held that position. Along the way, among many other impressive appointments, Judge Nelson served on the Federal Reserve Board, as chair of the board of directors of the American Judicature Society, and as dean of the University of Southern California Gould School of Law, where she was fondly known as “Dean Dottie.” Again, Judge Nelson assumed this position at a time when few women were law school deans.

From her earliest school years, she excelled academically. In second grade, she was placed into a class for gifted children. Her academic prowess continued, as reflected in her serving as valedictorian of her high school graduating class. Although she came of age in a time when women were not encouraged to work outside the home, in Judge Nelson’s family there was no question that she would have a professional career. And that she did. She attended UCLA for her undergraduate studies, finishing at the top of her class and serving as student body vice president (women were not allowed to serve as president). She remained at UCLA for law school, becoming one of only two women in her class.

It was during her law school years that a defining moment occurred in Judge Nelson’s life. She and her law school classmates were initially all invited to join a national legal fraternity, but they were later informed that “all” did not include the two women and the lone African American student. In response to that exclusion, one of the class leaders convinced his peers to resign from that group and start their own, which would be more inclusive. When Judge Nelson inquired why he took that bold action, he responded that his life was changing due to his attendance at Baháʼí meetings. He invited Judge Nelson to attend a meeting, but she declined. A few weeks later when she was asked by another classmate, she accepted, attending with her beloved husband, Jim (who later became a state court judge). The Nelsons became committed adherents to the Baháʼí faith, which set the course of their life and their profession.

Judge Nelson was particularly attuned to the Baháʼí emphases on peace, finding common ground, and truth-seeking. As she developed her expertise in judicial administration, Judge Nelson kept those learned values close and integrated them into her burgeoning interest in ADR. She began to publicly tout the virtues of ADR with her students, court personnel, and other academics. She took every opportunity to champion ADR as a viable and essential part of the justice system. Although some of her colleagues denigrated ADR as “a woman’s thing,” Judge Nelson steadfastly maintained that ADR should be embraced as a mainstream component of case processing, with a positive byproduct of greater access to justice for those unable to afford protracted litigation and expensive attorneys.

While serving as dean at USC law school, Judge Nelson initiated an ADR clinic to provide assistance to senior citizens and other underserved populations. She also taught ADR in her classrooms, training future judicial leaders who would later embrace its use. As Kloppenberg writes, “When [Judge Nelson] first suggested that the judicial administration field and ADR were worth studying, she was prescient and her vision bold.”

ADR took a giant leap forward when judges became more familiar with its benefits and began to require arbitration and mediation for pending cases. Judge Nelson is to be largely credited with that change, but it was a change that required considerable persuasive force. At the outset, courts viewed ADR as an unwelcome competitor to the traditional court-centered system. But gradually, private arbitration became increasingly popular as a means to resolve legal matters more expeditiously than litigation. At the same time, private judging developed in response to in-house counsels’ continuing quest to reduce the cost and delay associated with complex civil litigation. Once business litigators embraced ADR, the federal government wasn’t far behind, with President Bill Clinton issuing an executive order in the mid 1990s promoting its use within federal agencies. And Judge Nelson played a pivotal role in steering all of these factions toward widespread adoption of the practice.

Today, arbitration and mediation are a part of our daily life. Virtually every consumer contract, rental agreement, user agreement, and employment agreement, as well as countless other documents we sign routinely contain clauses providing for ADR, usually by way of arbitration or mediation. Without Judge Nelson’s vision and determination, the legal system could have languished, bogged down by expensive litigation and costly delay. Kloppenberg quotes Rachel Moran, dean emerita of UCLA School of Law, in praise of Judge Nelson “for being in the ‘vanguard’ of the ADR movement, writing actively on ADR topics and putting her mediation skills to practical use in resolving disputes.” In sum, this book tells the story of how Judge Nelson became not only the dean of USC Gould but also the dean of ADR. While doing so, she served as a mentor and role model for countless young women who were encouraged to pursue a legal career, inspired by Judge Nelson’s lifelong example of fearlessly navigating spaces where few women had gone before.

At 165 pages, this book is an easy read. The prose flows smoothly and the content is engaging from beginning to end. Kloppenberg skillfully guides the reader between Judge Nelson’s fascinating personal story and her inspiring professional life, chronicling her many accomplishments and trailblazing achievements. The reader comes away with deep admiration and respect for Judge Nelson’s personal successes, and deep gratitude for her groundbreaking integration of ADR into the justice system. Judge Nelson’s love of humanity and love of the law radiate throughout the pages. Her life’s work reflects that indeed for Judge Nelson, the best beloved thing is justice.

Johnnie Blakeney Rawlinson is a United States Circuit Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

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