Blazing a Trail to the Supreme Court
In November 2006, Virginia L. Linder JD’80 made history: She became the first woman in Oregon to win a contested election for an open seat on the Oregon Supreme Court. And she did so with overwhelming support from members of the Oregon State Bar. According to a bar poll, 83 percent of the state’s legal community supported Linder in the election.
No doubt, Linder’s distinguished career as the chief appellate lawyer for the state and as a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals gave her an edge in the election. Throughout the 27 years she has served the state, Linder has become known as a fair-minded and hard-working public official. It is a responsibility she does not take lightly.
“The primary responsibility of the courts is to resolve private disputes impartially and to protect individual freedom,” Linder said. “This is difficult to say aloud, because it sounds worn as a notion. We’re so acclimated to the idea that our courts do that. Like clean air and water, we take strong courts for granted. We don’t think about them because the rule of law is so central to our daily lives. But when you don’t have a strong court system, that’s all you can think about.”
Linder finds it remarkable that our courts are so effective, even though they hold so little power — no military or power of the purse. She believes their strength comes from the respect and confidence of the public they serve. “All people desire a strong system of law,” she said. “It is human nature. The very existence of the court inspires respect. But good stewardship of the court is demanded by citizens.”
Although Linder has served in state government since the beginning of her legal career, she did not seriously consider a career in law until her early 20s. The daughter of second- and third-generation school teachers, the Colorado native initially thought she would follow in her parents’ footsteps. However, while studying political science at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Ore., Linder “fell in with a pre-law group” that fueled her interest in government and law.
When I began thinking of attending law school, I had not even heard of a woman becoming a lawyer,” she said matter-of-factly. “I think hanging around with supportive men made it seem doable. The idea began as a gleam in my eye. And little by little, I understood that I could do it.”
Linder graduated with her bachelor’s degree in 1975 and worked on the East Coast for two years to save money for law school. In 1977, she returned to Oregon and enrolled in Willamette University College of Law. “I chose Willamette primarily for its location in the seat of government,” she explained. “I knew I wanted to be around the workings of government, and that choice has directed my career.”
Linder took advantage of the school’s proximity to state government offices and clerked for the Appellate Division of the Oregon Department of Justice (DOJ) during her second and third years of law school. “At the time, the school didn’t put a limit on the number of hours a student could work,” she explained. “I worked a minimum of 20 hours a week at the DOJ and full time during summers and spring breaks. I handled about 50 appeals while still in law school.
“I loved all parts of the job — the analytical challenge of it and the advocacy,” Linder said. The clerkship gave shape to many of the legal theories she was learning in school. “I liked working through legal problems by way of a real case rather than thinking about law abstractly. I had a real file, a real case, and I learned to communicate persuasively.”
When Linder graduated from Willamette in 1980, the attorney general offered her a permanent position in the Appellate Division. As assistant attorney general in the division, she handled cases in all areas of public law, including civil, criminal, juvenile and administrative. She also developed expertise in Oregon constitutional analysis and sex abuse crimes involving children. “The job was amazing,” she said. “It was the ‘best of the best’ in the public sector.”
Although Linder was one of only three female attorneys when she joined the division, she never felt limited by her gender. “I had a good experience in the division,” she explained. “I got the sense a woman could really thrive there. They were all really good lawyers standing toe-to-toe.”
In 1984, Linder was named assistant solicitor general of Oregon. Two years later, at age 33, she was promoted to solicitor general, the chief appellate lawyer for the state and the administrative head of the appellate division. Linder, who has been a pioneering “first female” in a number of positions throughout her career, was the first woman to hold the title. She also held the position longer than anyone in Oregon history. “I was only six years out of law school, but I had already been working in the division for eight years,” she explained. “I had been there longer than many of the other attorneys, and I had worked my way from the ground up.”
As solicitor general, Linder directed the work of more than 30 appellate attorneys who appeared on behalf of Oregon in state and federal appellate courts. She routinely worked on some of the most difficult and sensitive legal policy issues that arose and regularly presented cases before the Oregon Court of Appeals, the Oregon Supreme Court and the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In addition, Linder participated in briefings and argument preparations for Oregon on a number of cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. In doing so, she became the first woman in history to represent Oregon before the nation’s highest court.
Among her many achievements, Linder is particularly proud of the eighth and final case she presented to the U.S. Supreme Court — what she calls the “icing on the cake” of her appellate career. Linder co-drafted an amicus brief on Oregon’s behalf urging that a Colorado anti-gay amendment be found unconstitutional. Amendment Two sought to withdraw all legal protection, including antidiscrimination laws for employment, on the basis of people’s sexual orientation. “Oregon took the lead on the amicus brief, and other states joined it,” said Linder. The Supreme Court struck down the amendment.
After almost 12 years as solicitor general, Linder set her sights on a seat on the Oregon Court of Appeals. “As much as I loved my job, I know there is virtue in bringing in new perspectives,” she explained. “I also knew the only way I could leave the job would be to move onto something where I could do even more. I got to the point in my career where I wanted to play another role in the legal process — a judgeship. Being a judge lets you take the experience and perspective you have from past legal work and contribute in a different way.”
Linder was appointed to the Oregon Court of Appeals in 1997 by Gov. John Kitzhaber. She was subsequently elected in 1998 and re-elected in 2004. Linder became the fifth woman in Oregon history to hold a seat on the court. Linder joined the court alongside Judge Susan M. Leeson BA’68, JD’81 and Judge Mary J. Deits JD’74. It was the first time three female judges served together on the court.
“Gini, Susan and I sat together on the Court of Appeals for a brief period,” explained Deits, who was named chief judge in 1998. “We took advantage of the opportunity to sit together as a three-judge panel. It was the first time the court ever had an all-female panel.
“Gini was just so incredibly qualified for the job,” she continued. “We were all excited to have her join the court. She’s just so incredibly bright and hardworking. She’s also very collegial. You can discuss ideas with her openly and even disagree with her. She’s always willing to support others.”
Oregon’s Court of Appeals is one of the busiest in the nation. “The volume of work on the court is unbelievable,” Deits said. “The court gets something like 4,000 notices of appeal a year.” During the nine years Linder sat on the court, she voted on more than 7,000 cases and wrote more than 300 opinions.
Although the Oregon Court of Appeals is not always a stepping stone to the Oregon Supreme Court, it served as one for Linder. In 2006, she made a successful bid for a seat on the Court, winning a contested election with a 52 percent majority. “There’s a big difference between standing for election, which you do whether you are opposed or not, and running for election in a contested race,” Linder noted. “There are not a lot of contested judicial elections, but I think the 2006 election struck a good tone. It maintained the honor of the office.
“When elections become highly expensive and driven by the media, the quest becomes one for money,” she added. “And the issue becomes where the money comes from. That’s the problem other states have seen with judicial elections. So far in Oregon, our system seems to be working fine and serving the public well.”
When Linder was sworn in Jan. 2, 2007, as the 99th justice of the Oregon Supreme Court, she made history again. Linder and Martha Lee Walters, who was appointed to the Court in October 2006, are the first two women to serve together on Oregon’s highest court. When asked about this milestone, Linder said she feels “mostly fortunate” for the opportunity to serve as a Supreme Court justice. “My career has involved a lot of good fortune,” she said. “I’ve been really lucky to have had so many opportunities, but I’ve also worked hard.”
Linder, who has served as an adjunct professor of law at Willamette since 1998, hopes her own success will influence Willamette’s female law graduates to strive for more prominent positions in the field. “The presence of women in law is good for everyone,” she explained. “It is important for people of different ethnicities, genders and sexualities to see nontraditional players succeed. It gives others their own sense of place in an environment in which they might otherwise feel too much like an outsider. It helps legitimize their path for them. They feel they can walk it, too.”