Judge Katherine Tennyson

Multnomah County Circuit Court Chief Probate Judge Katherine Tennyson

Judge Tennyson knew she wanted to be a judge a few years before she ran for, and was elected to, the Multnomah County Circuit Court in 2002. She had been in private practice for 16 years with Kris Winemiller, and prior to that, at a small firm in Beaverton.

But her journey to the bench began long before then.

Judge Tennyson grew up in Colville, Washington, a town of about 5,000 people just north of Spokane. It was a small, rural place, where her parents owned a dry cleaning and laundromat business. She spent much of her time working for her parents and was active in Girl Scouts and high school sports.

The youngest of four children, Tennyson's family tradition had been to go away to college, so she chose Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, where she received a degree in political science in 1981.

"It was a good experience for me because it really taught me to be my own person in a very safe environment," she recalls. "I always knew I could come home, although back then we didn't have computers, and making a long distance call was still kind of a big deal. You were really on your own."

When it came time to go to law school, Tennyson returned to the Pacific Northwest, earning her law degree from Lewis & Clark Law School in 1984. She clerked at a small Beaverton firm until after graduation, when she became a full-time associate. She then began her own practice with Winemiller until she ascended to the bench in 2002.

During her days in private practice, Tennyson started to realize that she enjoyed seeing both sides of the story.

"A good lawyer starts to analyze a case from every side in order to understand what their strengths are and what their weaknesses are, and then tries to figure out what a judge is going to do with it," she says. "I started to really like that process better than having to sometimes argue the certain things in order to represent my client adequately."

The position of a judge, she says, offers freedom from serving as an advocate of just one side or the other. "You can see through to the middle so much easier sitting in this chair. I really wanted that in my life rather than conflict."

However, becoming a judge does not mean giving up advocacy, especially for the people whom she sees in her courtroom time and time again. For example, during a domestic relations case in which children are involved, Tennyson suggests to parents that they "take the high road," to reduce the amount of conflict for the children's sake, to get people to agree to be better to each other.

"I very much think you can be an advocate for those kinds of things," she says. "We just don't call it that. We call it being a good judge. Justice may be blind but it isn't ignorant of all the things you need to know about a family, like child development and the impact of domestic violence and all the things that go into making a decision about a child."

Tennyson subscribes to the idea of advocacy for the profession, that judges can be leaders when it comes to finding best practices in the law community as a whole, whether criminal or civil.

The days when judges were expected to sit back and "call the balls and strikes" is long gone, she says. Today, "we can affect outcomes in a more positive way, increase community safety and other concerns - these are not improper things for a judge to do."

Written for the Internet in 2008 by Kennedy Smith and updated in 2012.