A Beloved Judge

Lisa Kloppenberg’s newest book is dedicated to Judge Dorothy Nelson, who chartered a path for fellow women to thrive in the legal system.

Justice is a labor of love and trust in one another. In an increasingly polarizing world these sentiments have become muddled; however, pioneers like Judge Dorothy Nelson continue to show the way to common ground. For SCU Acting President and Dean Emerita Lisa Kloppenberg, Nelson has always been a cornerstone of conflict resolution and has inspired her since her days as a student at the USC Law Center. 

Kloppenberg’s new book, The Best Beloved Thing is Justice: The Life of Dorothy Wright Nelson, explores the life, faith, and achievements of Nelson. Nelson has been one of Kloppenberg’s closest advisors and was among the first to nudge her into becoming a dean. Ever since Kloppenberg was a student Nelson has always expressed a need for more women in the legal world.

“I only had two women teachers in law school,” Kloppenberg said. “ So for me to find a woman who was happily married, had children, had a loving husband, and could do all this. That was just a sea change for me [and] I saw that I could have a life in the law.”

The middle ground is where solutions happen. Nelson helped show Kloppenberg that there is a broad life within the law that goes beyond a courtroom’s walls. From being a classic 1950’s mom making homemade mac-and-cheese to challenging old boys club systems, Nelson showed anything was possible. She exemplified to Kloppenberg how a family woman of deep faith and a collaborative style could be a pathbreaker inspiring generations of women.

One of the many aspects Kloppenberg wanted to capture was how Nelson lives by her Baháʼí faith. Her faith took her around the globe and shaped many of the causes she fought for during her career. The Baháʼí faith emphasizes equality and Nelson and her husband embodied this in their efforts to diversify USC’s law school and a pursuit for middle ground. 

A main tenet of the Baháʼí faith is justice and to facilitate this they practice a process of conciliation. The faith also states that the best beloved thing is justice which is a gift and sign of loving kindness. This deep seated love of justice and practice of conciliation is what led Nelson to seek reformations in the legal system.

“She just believes [that] in every situation, even with people you completely disagree with politically, you can sit down and find some common ground,” Kloppenberg said. “And she was such a hopeful [and] persevering person, she just kept working at that.”

Even in her own private life, Nelson practiced conciliation with her husband. At the dinner table they would argue over politics and legal documents, however, they would always find common ground. 

Another aspect of Nelson that Kloppenberg highlights is her belief that everyone deserves their day in court. Nelson would look for those marginalized or outcast. On the court day of a Watsonville voting rights case, she noticed farmers and women carrying babies standing in the hallways of the courthouse. From behind the scenes she moved the court to a large room so that everyone could get their day on court.

The mediation program Nelson started has continued to help people find common ground. In writing the book Kloppenberg learned that within that program 75 percent of the cases settled at the appellate level. 

“There’s something still powerful that can be done in many cases even at the appellate level,” Kloppenberg said. “Which is a real lesson for me to be persistent and not give up hope when you’re trying to find common ground among people.”

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