The path Darleen Ortega took to become a judge of the Oregon Court of Appeals was anything but typical.
Consider the evidence. She was born in a Mexican-American part of East Los Angeles, the oldest daughter of a Mexican-American mother who was 16 when she married her 21-year-old Caucasian husband. By the age of 26, Darleen’s mom had four children. The culture she was raised in was one in which 'women got married young and had kids,' says Ortega, who in October became the first woman of color and first Latina to serve on the Oregon Court of Appeals.
Neither of her parents went to college. 'I was a good student, but they didn’t particularly encourage me to go to college,' she says. 'I always wanted to go. I was a voracious reader as a child.' Her family moved to tiny Banks, Oregon, when Darleen was 10. She was one of three valedictorians in her graduating class of 75 at Banks High School. Ortega then went to George Fox College (now University) in Newberg. 'I was interested in being a writer,' says Ortega, who majored in writing and literature and finished summa cum laude. She looked at seminary, teaching and — after several people in college told her she should consider it — the law. She was told, 'You argue well.'
She applied to several law schools and was interested in to going to a nationally regarded school. She chose the University of Michigan, where her husband at the time was accepted for a doctoral program in English. She says law school in Michigan at first was intimidating. Many students were Ivy League graduates from wealthy families. But she loved the school and the experience ended up being a 'formative' one for her, says Ortega, who graduated cum laude.
The couple remained in Michigan for three years, where Ortega worked in two Detroit law firms. All the while, though, she missed Oregon. She also had an eye toward a public service career in law. 'I’ve had an interest in being a judge and in public service for a long time, pretty much all my adult life,' she says. 'I hadn’t planned to practice in a private firm.' When she returned to Oregon in 1992, Ortega joined Bullivant Houser Bailey in Portland. At Bullivant Houser, she practiced appellate law exclusively two of her three years there, except for continuing to represent the American Red Cross as regional counsel, a client she represented first in Detroit and then carried to Davis Wright Tremaine, where she practiced from 1995 until being appointed to the bench by the governor.
Ortega had been a partner with Davis Wright since 1998, but the thought of public service 'never left my mind,' she says. 'I did some serious soul-searching when I made the change (in firms). I really wanted to do public service. Even if my job doesn’t (involve public service) directly, I wanted to do it as a volunteer. I wanted to give back. I made a very conscious effort to step up.'
She took leadership roles with the diversity section of the Oregon State Bar and with 'helping my firm look at that issue.' She also became president of the board of directors of Oregon Adoption & Family Services, served on the board of the Heart Research Center at Oregon Health & Science University, and became active in Oregon Women Lawyers. 'I wanted to be a resource to other women,' she says. Ortega also began coordinating the mentorship program within Davis Wright.
'I’ve been an active mentor, both inside and outside the firm. I felt very disadvantaged early on, because I didn’t have people to ask,' she says. 'I really made a conscious decision to be watchful for other people.'
Michelle A. Bellia, formerly a lawyer at Davis Wright and now assistant county attorney for Multnomah County, says Ortega took her and other younger lawyers 'under her wing' to help them feel comfortable in adjusting to joining a large firm, 'because it’s easy to feel lost.'
Ortega never abandoned her early love of writing, either. In fact, she says, 'I tell people what attracted me to appellate law is my interest writing novels as a child. You’re telling a story and trying to make it compelling.'
Also, as a hobby, she parlays her affection for the cinema into an annual tradition of writing movie reviews of what she considers the year’s 10 best films, which she circulates among friends in an e-mail group.
She adds that her family has accepted her career and success. 'In the last few years, I think they’ve become pretty proud of me. It’s a pretty remarkable thing in my family.' Her mother told her she wished her own parents were alive to see how far she has come. To honor those grandparents, Ortega says, she dropped her married name, Darnall, last year and changed it to Ortega.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cliff Collins is a frequent contributor to the OSB Bulletin.
© 2003 Cliff Collins