The enduring legacy of Justice Betty Roberts

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"I'm not done with my torch yet. Go get your own." — Justice Betty Roberts

A ripple went through the fabric of our state on Saturday with the passing of Justice Betty Roberts. A mother, a teacher, a lawyer, a legislator, a judge, "mentor-in-chief", a "true Oregon pioneer" -- is there a title that cannot be conferred upon this incredible Oregonian? Ann Aiken, Chief Judge of the US District Court of Oregon said it best in local media, "I simply cannot imagine Oregon without Betty Roberts."

The first woman appointed to the Oregon Supreme Court, the Honorable Betty Roberts broke the mold for women's leadership in Oregon. Receiving her undergraduate degree as a mother of four at the age of 35, Betty continued on to receive a Master's in Political Science and eventually her law degree -- all the while challenging societal notions about women's roles. (Denied the opportunity to pursue a Doctorate by the University of Oregon, Portland State University just this month presented her with an Honorary Doctorate.) While in the Oregon legislature, Justice Roberts fought for the successful passage of the Equal Rights Amendment as well as specific legislation granting women more rights in divorce and protections against domestic violence. She was also a cosponsor of the landmark Bottle Bill.

After running for Governor in 1974 and then the Senate (she lost her Senate race to Bob Packwood) later that year after her primary loss, Roberts was appointed to the Court of Appeals in 1977. Governor Vic Atiyeh appointed her to the Oregon Supreme Court in 1982, where she served until 1986. Returning to her Equal Rights past, Justice Roberts wrote the Hewitt v. SAIF opinion finding that men and women have equal rights under Oregon law.

And if you think she was done after resigning from the Supreme Court, think again. Justice Roberts active in mediation until her later years, also presided over the first legal same-sex marriage when it was briefly allowed in Multnomah County in 2004.

Born the year Justice Betty Roberts was appointed to the Oregon Court of Appeals, I reflect now that I have never known a time when women weren't on the Oregon bench. I grew up believing that I could be anything I wanted to be — that being female didn't limit my opportunities. And yet, I also went through an entire Oregon education never knowing the name of Justice Betty Roberts, even though many of the battles she fought provided me and all of the women who came up behind her a future of our own choosing.

A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to spend some time with Justice Roberts when the Center for Women, Politics & Policy honored her at their annual luncheon. While I coordinated plans with her for the event, I also was reading her memoir, "With Grit and By Grace". As I progressed through the book, I was getting to experience what thousands of women in Oregon who have come into contact with Justice Roberts have experienced -- her dogged belief that women needed to step up, to put themselves forward. But her support, her encouragement required responsibility and integrity. It was that responsibility she bestowed that in some ways was most important. Not just that you could be a leader, but that you should be one. The words she shared to a packed room at the Center's luncheon that fall will always stay with me. She said about passing the torch to younger women, "I'm not done with my torch yet. Go get your own."

In a public statement Senator Ron Wyden said of Justice Roberts, "Oregon has lost one of its true giants, but we have not lost the memory of what she gave to our state. Her stature in Oregon's legal, legislative and political history is legendary. …she leaves behind an enduring legacy as a champion for equality and a tireless advocate for doing what was right based on facts and the truth."

And even with her legendary "legal, legislative and political stature", perhaps her most enduring legacy is the many women across the state and the nation who have been given the gift of Justice Roberts' mentorship. Since meeting her in person just two years ago, I know I have grown as a citizen and a leader and I marvel at the countless women out there who can tell a similar tale. And so maybe she is right. It's not about passing the torch. It's about how many torches you can light along the way.

Sources: 1) The Oregonian 2) Wikipedia 3) Register-Guard

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