Judge Kenneth Walker

Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Ken Walker

Some judges have gone directly from high school, to college, to law school, to private practice, to the bench. This is not about one of those judges.

Judge Walker was born in 1951 in San Pedro, Calif.; his family moved to nearby Compton when he was six months old. His parents were from Mississippi. They had moved to California to raise their children in an environment that would offer more opportunity for African-Americans than was possible in the Deep South . What they didn't know what that Compton, and its neighbors Watts and South Central Los Angeles, were beginning to change almost as they arrived. In a picture from Judge Walker's fifth birthday party, the 10 neighborhood children attending were black, white and Asian; the pictures of his eighth birthday party show only black neighbors. His parents had unknowingly traded the segregation and poverty of the South for the segregation and poverty of the inner city.

The future judge first thought of becoming a lawyer while watching Perry Mason on TV. "He represented the underdog, and he made sure that all people were protected in court, even if they appeared to be guilty. I liked that," he says. But Walker also toyed with the idea of becoming a professional athlete. He played almost all sports as he grew up, but baseball was his favorite. At the age of eight he had a "decent curveball" and asked his father if he should become a professional baseball player or a lawyer. "A lawyer," his father said. "A pro ballplayer lasts maybe 5-10 years; you can be a lawyer for life."

Getting there, however, would come be a fairly circuitous route. Compton in the 1960s was becoming an increasingly tough neighborhood. At the end of his junior year in high school, several of his friends convinced him to try something different.

"They had gone into the Job Corps in Tongue Point, Oregon, then transferred to a high school equivalency program in Eugene," he says. "When they came back to Los Angeles to visit, they told me about a place where people were friendly, smiled at you, and trusted you. I was sold."

The Eugene program was full, however, so he went to a similar program in Pullman, Wash. He got his GED and finished his first semester of college at Washington State. The Culture shock of living in Pullman, however, finally hit. He returned to Los Angeles only to find that he was now "Living in a war zone," so he moved back to Eugene and enrolled at Lane Community College, where he was soon elected vice president of the student body.

The summer following his sophomore year he was elected vice president of the National Student Association. He moved to Washington, D.C., for a year and traveled around the country, working with student governments nationwide. Then it was back to Eugene for a BA from U of O in community service and public affairs. He moved to Portland looking for a good job, but all he could get was one as a night watchman, so after another year it was back to the U of O for law school.

His first job out of law school was with Marion-Polk Legal Aid in Salem. After 18 months he left to join the Portland office of Metropolitan Public Defender Services, where he remained for seven and a half years, representing clients in the full gamut of criminal cases. He also became reacquainted with Ernie Warren, another young black attorney he had first met in Salem. They started to talk about private practice and in 1990 left the public defenders to open the first African American law firm in Oregon.

They planned to move from criminal defense into civil practice after a few years. Warren did that, but Judge Walker couldn't shake his memories of Perry Mason. He realized that he truly enjoyed criminal defense and his ability to "help the little guy." So he stayed with it, building up a substantial retained practice while continuing to represent indigent defendants for more than 17 years. He also became more active in the community, raised a family and played in 15 national softball championships.

On February 28, Governor Ted Kulongoski appointed Judge Walker to Department 11, the seat Judge Linda Bergman held for 26 years. While he won't commit to that long a judicial career, he is certainly enjoying the challenge.

"I loved to try cases and fight for my client," Judge Walker says, "and being a judge feels like a natural transition from practice. Now I try to objectively look at the facts, read the cases, listen to the arguments and then try to get it right. To me, that is the essence of being in the legal profession."

That intellectual exercise, though, will always be tempered with an understanding of where he came from. "Sometimes when I look across the bench, I see that teenager from Compton. He will be held accountable if he's done something wrong, but if we can give him the right opportunity at the right time, he might surprise us all with what he really has."

Just like Judge Walker.

Originally authored by Gregory Silver and printed in the November 2007 Multnomah Lawyer
Updated for the Internet in 2012