Mercedes Deiz was a person with
two “firsts” attached to her name:
first African American woman to be
admitted to the Oregon Bar, and
the first African American woman
to serve on the Oregon bench.
Mercedes Deiz will always have a special place in my heart. She took me under her wing when I was a law student and never let go of me. When I was wondering what direction I should take with my law practice shortly after I passed the bar she offered me excellent guidance. When I was still a fairly new lawyer I took my teenage son to visit her court for a school project he was working on; it was at a time when I probably was not my son’s favorite person; “Merce” (as she was fondly called by her friends) beckoned my son and me into her chambers and proceeded to lift me up onto a pedestal right before my son’s eyes. I appeared before Judge Deiz several times as a lawyer; her ability to “read” people always amazed me. I remember one particular case in which I was fighting for my client to have custody of his child; we lost and I thought Judge Deiz made a bad decision; a few years later I realized that she made absolutely the correct decision. I had the honor to serve with “Merce” as founding board members of Oregon Women Lawyers. I was also privileged to serve with her on the Oregon Supreme Court Task Force on Racial and Ethnic Issues in the Judicial System. She was a wonderful mentor and a true friend. It is a great pleasure to share her story during Black History Month.
By Cliff Collins
Some people become pioneers by accident, others by choice. Mercedes Deiz consciously chose to be a pioneer, seemingly at every step along her lengthy career. When she died in Portland Oct. 5, 2005 at age 87, Deiz left a long legacy of service to the Oregon State Bar and the profession, but also specifically to many individual lawyers, especially women and attorneys from ethnic minorities.
“Judge Deiz was a one-person affirmative action committee, welcoming and counseling Oregon’s minority lawyers,” wrote attorney Katherine H. O’Neil in 2000, when endorsing Deiz for the OSB’s highest honor, the Award of Merit. “I do believe that each and every African-American lawyer who entered practice between 1970 and 1992 sat with Judge Deiz in her chambers, receiving a few hours or more of private tutoring in career development.”
“Black has nothing to do with the color of the skin; it’s a question of ethnicity,” Deiz once said. “You are your race. A person has roots to whatever he or she comes from in one’s ancestry. And I am a black lady.”
Her self-identify was, again, a conscious choice, as she was of mixed racial descent, raised in an impoverished, polyglot Harlem neighborhood. Born Mercedes Frances Lopez in 1917 in New York City, she was the oldest of 10 children. Her mother was Czechoslovakian, and her father was black and born in Cuba. Though her family was poor, she said her parents insisted that their children frequent the library, and she grew up reading and visiting the city’s free museums.
“My dad had much more of an influence on me (than my mother) in being an individualist,” she is quoted as saying in Images of Oregon Women, a 1983 book by Ellen Nichols. “He insisted that each of his kids be unique to the best of our abilities.”
Mercedes Deiz became the first black female lawyer in Oregon when she was admitted to the bar in 1960. In November 1969, then-Gov. Tom McCall appointed her as a district court judge, making her the first woman of color to become a judge in Oregon. That next May primary, Multnomah County voters elected her to the post outright, and she became the first black woman to be elected to the bench in Oregon. In 1972, she was encouraged to run for the Multnomah County Circuit Court, and in the general election, she defeated seven male challengers for the position.
“She saw her role in the right way — not just being the first, but making sure there were many more to follow her,” Oregon Court of Appeals Judge Ellen F. Rosenblum told The Oregonian after Deiz’s death.
“As a woman of color, she was always subjected to heightened scrutiny,” wrote Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Marilyn E. Litzenberger, then-president of Oregon Women Lawyers, in support of Deiz’s Award of Merit. “She responded with grace, humor and self-confidence. Her path-breaking example has convinced hundreds of others, male and female, that there is a place for them in the legal community. Her personal mentoring and encouragement of younger lawyers are legendary.”
After graduating from high school at the age of 16, Deiz worked variously as a maid, theater usher, switchboard operator and ticket clerk, and completed three years at Hunter College of the City of New York before marrying. She helped organize women within her union of office employees. She and her husband held fund raisers to help pay for legal-action cases involving race. In 1948, after 12 years of marriage, she left her husband and took her 4-year-old son to Portland, where a brother lived. She recalled arriving by train with only $12 to her name.
After being denied service in a Portland restaurant, Deiz became active in the local Urban League and the NAACP. “But she (was) discriminated against more often because of her gender than because of her race,” Nichols wrote. “She was frustrated in several job-seeking attempts because — private sector or civil service — the jobs were restricted to males, even though she was qualified in every other respect.” When she sought to advance at Bonneville Power Administration, Deiz later recalled, the job posts read, “Men Only,” or “Veterans Only.” She held various jobs, including eventually working with the Internal Revenue Service, the BPA, and in a law firm as a legal assistant.
According to O’Neil, Deiz said that at an early age, she wanted to become a lawyer because she believed that the law was the forum to right wrongs. Nichols quoted Deiz’s explanation for wanting to go to law school: “I really want to … help people. And I can’t see how to do it better than just being an advocate and speaking for them. I always wanted to do that.”
While working with the IRS in Portland, she met fellow IRS worker Carl Deiz and married him in 1949. They raised three children. Her husband helped take care of the children while she attended Northwestern School of Law at night while working as a legal assistant. She finished fourth in her class. In a 1999 interview, she credited her husband with taking a large part in raising their children. “I am not a dependent woman,” she said. “But I could not have done the things I did without Carl.”
She continued her community activism, and practiced trial law for eight years — during which she said her clients were overwhelmingly white males, and she received many referrals from male attorneys — and served as an administrative law judge with the workers’ compensation board for two years, before her appointment to the bench.
“As a judge, you have to be strictly impartial and eschew any perception of any kind of bias one way or another,” she told Nichols. “But my sensitivities and concerns are always for working people; that’s what I came from.”
She also became an advocate for youth after spending much of her judgeship presiding over family law cases. Deiz served on the Governor’s Committee on Children and Youth, and the Metropolitan Youth Commission. She was on the board of the National Association for Women Judges, of which she was a founding member.
Deiz also was a founding board member of Oregon Women Lawyers and actively involved in the National Bar Association, Oregon Minority Lawyers Association and the Owen Panner Inns of Court. At Harvard Law School, she taught trial techniques as a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow, and in 1997, the school she attended as an undergraduate, Hunter College, awarded her an honorary doctorate degree.
She also did volunteer work within the bar, including after she was forced by law to retire in 1992 because of age, following her election to four six-year terms as a judge. Deiz served on the Oregon Supreme Court Task Force on Racial and Ethnic Issues in the Judicial System and on the Multnomah Bar Association’s Status of Women Committee.
At the OSB, she was on the Public Service and Information Committee and the Press and Broadcasters Committee, and she chaired the Minor Courts Committee. For the Multnomah Bar Association, she served as secretary and treasurer. She also was a member of the American Bar Association, Queen’s Bench, the American Judicature Society and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.
Deiz’s community and public service included work with many organizations devoted to civil rights and education. She lectured on the court system, rights of minorities, race and ethnic relations, women’s rights and juvenile and family law. She was a 12-year board member of the National Center for State Courts, and a member of the Governor’s Commission on Judicial Reform. She chaired the State Advisory Committee to the federal Civil Rights Commission, and vice-chaired the Urban League in Portland.
Her numerous awards included: the Northwestern School of Law Distinguished Alumna Award; the Chisolm Award for contributions to Oregon citizens; the March of Dimes’ Oregon’s Ten Outstanding Women; Oregon Women Lawyers’ Mother of Achievement Award; the Association of Black Lawyers Distinguished Service on the Bench Award; the Urban League’s Devotion to Concept of Equality Award and the Woman of Accomplishment Award.
Deiz and her husband, who survives her, enjoyed traveling abroad, according to The Oregonian, which added that she not only was adventurous in her career, but also in her leisure activities, such as paragliding in Mexico.
The OSB recognized her in 1992 with its Affirmative Action Award, and in 2000 — on the 40th anniversary of her admission to the bar — with the Award of Merit, the OSB’s highest honor, which is “awarded in recognition of outstanding contributions to the bench, bar and community at large by attorneys who exhibit the highest standards of professionalism.”
“From the time Mercedes Deiz tried her first case, in October 1960, until the present day, she has exemplified the qualities which make the very best lawyers: common sense, practicality, a quick wit, decisiveness, compassion, concern for the community and an abiding love and respect for the law,” wrote Litzenberger in 2000.
“In each of her 40 years as lawyer, judge and … senior judge, (Deiz) … made significant contributions towards public respect for the legal system,” added O’Neil. “She has made a significant, positive difference in dozens and dozens of lawyers of color, and the legal careers of dozens and dozens of women lawyers.”
Editor’s note: Beatrice Cannady, erroneously reported to be the first female African-American attorney in Oregon by various sources including the Oregon Historical Society, never was admitted to the bar, but that didn’t stop her from representing clients in court. Cannady, who graduated from Northwestern School of Law in 1922, failed the bar examination five times. … Cannady was a feisty and outspoken advocate for civil rights and successfully defended black children who had been denied attendance in Oregon public schools. Throughout her adult life, she worked to improve race relations and better living and educational conditions for blacks. In 1929 the Portland Council of Churches nominated her for the Harmon Award for outstanding contributions to race relations, and over the years she received much public acclaim for her efforts. It would be another 38 years before a black woman, Mercedes Deiz, would be admitted to the Oregon State Bar and become the state’s first female African American attorney.
Source: “Serving Justice: A History of the Oregon State Bar, 1890-2000.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cliff Collins is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.
© 2005 Cliff Collins