Judge Darleen Ortega

Oregon Court of Appeals

Over breakfast at Lorn and Dotties in Portland, Judge Darleen Ortega shared personal experiences not easily seen from her accomplished resume. She had just returned from a trip to Thailand, a first for her in that country, though she makes an annual trip overseas. Hearing about those annual trips, one is impressed with her love of being immersed in foreign cultures and her openness to new experiences.

Oregon voters know of her dedication and intelligence, graduating summa cum laude from George Fox University in 1984 and cum laude from the University of Michigan Law School in 1989. Attorneys and judges recognized her as a talented, hardworking litigator, first in Michigan and then in Oregon where she specialized in complex civil cases and appeals. While an associate, then partner, at Davis Wright Tremaine, Ortega served on state and county bar committees and demonstrated a commitment to diversity education, mentoring and professionalism. When Governor Ted Kulongoski appointed her to the Court of Appeals in August 2003, he selected a woman whose passions have become her integral asset.

Ortega's family moved from Los Angeles, California, to Banks, Oregon, when she was 10 years old. As a child, she recalls being obsessed with reading novels, then while at Banks High School, becoming passionate about writing. She envisioned a life telling other people's stories.

Early on, she grasped the power of language. Growing up in a mixed-race household, having a cultural background different than any of her classmates, Ortega recalls often struggling to make herself understood and to make sense of situations in which she felt alien. Judge Ortega's parents had not been to college, and while they did not oppose her going, they had neither the funds nor the cultural experience to support her.

In college, Ortega excelled. She majored in writing and literature while working as an assistant to Professor Karen Larsen, later known as columnist "Ms. Grammar" for the OSB Bulletin. In the summertime, Ortega worked in daycare, then in an arthropod exhibit at the Washington Park Zoo.

With no prior exposure to attorneys and only a rudimentary understanding of what the practice of law entailed, Ortega enrolled in law school. Her parents were not supportive of her decision, but she carried within her the belief that a legal education would provide her the tools to help others. Law school opened up her world and at the same time cemented a strong connection to Oregon, becoming the "home" that she appreciated in new ways.

Financial considerations dictated Ortega's choice to enter private practice. After three years litigating in Detroit, she returned to Oregon. Ortega discovered that appellate practice perfectly matched her approach to detail, her writing skills and her interest in telling the stories of her clients. In private practice she also had the opportunity to mentor law students and young lawyers and to be of service in the community.

Serving on one of the busiest appellate courts in the nation, Judge Ortega has not lost sight of the importance of "hearing" the experience of others while efficiently managing a large volume of cases. Matters involving families and children hold a special interest for her; however Ortega recognizes that the court is a blunt instrument for resolving family issues. She hasn't lost sight of the real impact of appellate decisions on an Oregonian's family life.

Besides writing on cases before her, Judge Ortega, a longtime movie buff, regularly renders opinions through semi-annual film reviews for family and friends. A film favorite, "Crash," dealt with race issues and the dilemmas ethnic minorities face in the dominant culture. An all-time favorite for her is the original Matrix. Film, like travel, allows her to spend time in another person's experience and to come to understand that experience better.

Judge Ortega is grateful to be serving on the Oregon Court of Appeals, which suits her legal strengths and allows her to serve in the public interest. Oregonians are fortunate to have Ortega on the bench, a judge with a deep appreciation for the diverse experiences of others and an awareness of the richness that diversity brings to us all.

Originally authored by Julia Hagan and printed in the November 2005 Multnomah Lawyer
Updated for the Internet in 2007