Ulanda Watkins' already-unlikely journey may be poised for its most momentous turn. The Portland attorney is running for the Multnomah County Circuit Court seat vacated by the passing of Judge Clifford Freeman.
To say that the Northeast Portland native has faced obstacles in her life would be an understatement. Watkins was raised from birth to age 9 by her grandmother when her parents, teenagers at the time, were too poor to do raise her. Despite financial hardship, Watkins credits her "Grandma Ruth" with instilling the work ethic that has carried her to where she is today, a partner in the downtown firm of Walker, Warren and Watkins at the ripe old age of 36.
Academics were a saving grace for the young Watkins. She excelled in school, but that love of learning ran up against the rough territory that was Roosevelt High School of the mid-1980s. Drugs, violence and a heavy police presence were all too common. Soon, she stopped going to school altogether.
After reuniting with her grandmother, Watkins transferred to Wilson High, where her academic vigor blossomed once again. Outdoor school, summer school and night school at Benson High lifted her grade point average from its post-Roosevelt low, putting her in position to keep going when she graduated from Wilson in 1989.
She went on to attend Oregon State University on a full scholarship and became the first member of her family to earn a college degree. A law degree from Lewis and Clark College's Northwestern School of Law and a burgeoning career as an attorney soon followed.
"I think my background gives me a perspective that currently isn't represented on the Multnomah County bench," Watkins said, alluding to the dearth of judges of color on the court. But she is quick to add that it's her experience, and not just her skin tone, that gives her that perspective.
"People ask me, 'By "diversity," do you just mean your color?' Obviously, my response is, 'Well, no,' " she said. "What I mean by 'diversity,' and what I feel is really necessary for the county bench is diversity of background. I don't think you get any real justice if you put a person of color on the bench who has the same cookie-cutter educational background that is already represented. There's no one on the bench who has my upbringing."
Watkins said she has had some curious conversations about the prospect of her serving on the bench. People seem to have all sorts of preconceived notions of how being an African American would affect her on the job, she said — including some defense lawyers who have expressed a concern that she would "bend over backward" for the prosecution to prove that she wasn't biased in favor of defendants of color.
"For those people who are concerned, all I can say is I'm going to be true to my character," she said. "I'm not going to bend over one way or another. I'm going to ... look at how to sentence a person in such a way as to prevent them from coming back into the system, and in a way that benefits the community at the same time."
But at age 36, might she lack the wisdom and measured temperament demanded by a judicial post? No, Watkins said — her considerable experience in trial litigation and knowledge of judicial proceedings more than makes up for what some might perceive as a short span of years.
"I can give 34 years to this profession ... . Rather than running at the end of my career, I'm in the prime of it," she said.
"I have 10 years of litigation experience, and there's no one running in this race who has more litigation experience than I do. … I have the experience, I know all the players, I know every single judge, every district attorney, every defense attorney."
Watkins said she's keenly aware of a judge's role not only in meting out the law's punishment, but in taking the necessary steps to help people from finding themselves back in the criminal justice system once their debt to society is paid.
"I'm in that courtroom every day, and I deal with judges who feel that the answer is to put someone away and forget about it, and when they get out, it's society's problem," she said. "I would make a conscious effort to reach out and make sure that those people who are on probation have resources available."
Watkins said it's been exciting, albeit stressful, to seek a place on the bench. She said she's ready, she's willing and she's qualified to assume the responsibilities of the judiciary. It's time, she said, to step up and truly serve the community she loves.
"If I got the job, I could put on the robe and start tomorrow," she said.