A Supreme Overachiever
Susan M. Leeson’s resume is not for the faint of heart — or the insecure. She is, to put it mildly, something of an overachiever. Focus for too long on her numerous accomplishments and you might begin to feel a little weak. For your own safety, keep a chair handy…
Leeson BA’68, JD’81 graduated magna cum laude from Willamette University with a degree in political science. She then made her way to Claremont McKenna College in California, where she earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in government, studying under famed political philosopher Leo Strauss. After completing her Ph.D. coursework and qualifying exams, Leeson accepted a teaching position at her alma mater in Salem. She finished her dissertation and doctorate at the ripe old age of 24, while teaching six courses in political science at Willamette.
Leeson served on the Willamette faculty for more than 20 years. She initially taught at the College of Liberal Arts (CLA), but went on to teach at the College of Law as well. “When a colleague of mine who taught public law classes retired, the classes were assigned to me,” said Leeson, who enrolled in the College of Law to improve the quality of her teaching. “I attended law school part time while teaching full time at CLA.”
The summer after her first year of law school, Leeson had a postdoctoral fellowship in constitutional law at Princeton University. After graduation, she took a leave of absence from CLA and spent a year clerking for Justice Alfred T. Goodwin of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The following year, she was a judicial fellow in the office of Chief Justice Warren E. Burger of the U.S. Supreme Court. “I worked with Burger on a number of administrative matters, including an alternative dispute resolution program,” she explained. “This was a relatively new idea at the time.”
When Leeson returned to Salem in 1984, she accepted a joint appointment in political science and law. That same year, she worked with Professors Carlton Snow, Bryan Johnston and Leroy Tornquist to start the College of Law’s dispute resolution program. “Too many law students take a zealot’s approach to law,” Leeson said. “They don’t try to be a problem solver first. The dispute resolution program shows them why it is smart to settle a case rather than litigate.”
Although most people would consider 22 years of teaching to be reason for retirement, Leeson used it as a springboard for an entirely new career. In 1993, she was appointed to an open seat on the Oregon Court of Appeals. While on the bench, Leeson used her position to create the Oregon Appellate Settlement Conference Program, which introduced a new process for mediating cases on appeal. “A handful of other states across the country were doing appellate settlement work,” explained Judy S. Henry, director of the Appellate Settlement Conference Program. “Susan brought the idea to the court and said we should give it a try.”
Through the program, which was adopted in 1995, cases are selected for mediation immediately after a notice of appeal has been filed. Although initially created for general civil, domestic relations and workers’ compensation cases, the program is now open to all types. “People now get the opportunity to mediate a case before a trial and also on appeal,” Leeson explained. “You never know when someone will be willing to settle. Sometimes parties get to a point where they just need out. This gives them another venue.”
According to Henry, the settlement program has brought greater efficiencies to an overburdened court. “When Sue Leeson was on the bench, the Oregon Appellate Court was one of the busiest in the nation,” Henry noted. “At the time, about 4,000 cases were being filed with the appeals court each year. By bringing the program to Oregon, Sue was able to really streamline the appeals process for participants.
“One of the greatest benefits of the program is that it settles complex civil litigation, which can take up the greatest amount of judicial time,” Henry noted. “By settling some of these cases, the judges have more time to devote to other complex cases. This relieves the burden on the court and improves efficiency. It improves the overall quality of the court’s output. It works particularly well in Oregon because the quality of our mediators is so high and because we have such a collegial bar.”
After five years on the state Court of Appeals, Leeson set her sights on a new challenge — a seat on the Oregon Supreme Court. In February 1998, following a rigorous interview process, Gov. John Kitzhaber appointed her an associate justice of the state’s highest court. Leeson was the third woman to serve on the Supreme Court, after Justice Betty Roberts and Justice Susan P. Graber. Except for a brief two-month period when her appointment overlapped that of Graber, Leeson was the only woman on the Court during her tenure.
Although she shared the bench with six other justices, Leeson said her time on the Court was often “isolating” because her background and experience were so different from that of the other justices. “I believe many women think differently than many men,” she explained. “They process information differently and make decisions in a different way. I believe women judges have a less competitive approach to discussing cases and a less aggressive presence on the court.”
During her tenure, Leeson chaired the Oregon Supreme Court Law Library Advisory Committee, which helped transform the Supreme Court Library into the State of Oregon Law Library. According to Dick Breen, director of the J. W. Long Law Library at the College of Law, Leeson was “a moving force” in the transformation. “She also played a critical role in the renovations of the Court’s library,” he said. Today, the State of Oregon Law Library is an integral part of the Hatfield Library Consortium, the goal of which is to provide the larger community with access to resources from four of the state’s major libraries.
Leeson remained committed to her judicial responsibilities until a diagnosis of breast cancer convinced her to step down in 2003. “That experience taught me a profound lesson: You can be an overachiever your whole life — take on new challenges, climb one more mountain without nourishment — but eventually you discover that you can’t keep doing it and be happy and healthy,” she said.
Looking back, Leeson said she hopes her presence on the Supreme Court has been influential to other women. “Women lawyers and law clerks have told me that it was comforting to look up at the bench and see someone they recognized as similar to themselves,” she said. “I hope I was a good role model for young women.”
Since leaving the Court and winning her fight against breast cancer, Leeson has embarked on an entirely new career. Her keen interest in alternative dispute resolution led her to start Mediation Plus, which provides mediation, arbitration and consulting services. “Mediation is about healing,” she said. “It is about helping people move beyond conflict and focus on the future.”
In addition to running her consulting firm, mediating victimoffender cases and conducting mediator training, Leeson continues to teach law and civics. In honor of her many contributions to education and the legal profession, Leeson was named Legal Citizen of the Year 2006 by the Classroom Law Project. “It is very satisfying,” she said of this new chapter in her life. “In a way, it has given me my voice back.”
Susan M. Leeson JD’81
“Women lawyers and law clerks have told me that it was comforting to look up at the bench and see someone they recognized as similar to themselves.”