A Practical Star for Oregon and the Country: U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Elizabeth Perris

By U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Peter McKittrick and Diane K. Bridge

This article is based on an oral history conducted by Janice Dilg in 2015 and 2016 and some additional research. The oral history is on file with the Oregon Historical Society on behalf of the US District Court of Oregon Historical Society. The transcript of Judge Perris’s oral history can be found at https://usdchs.org/oral-histories/elizabeth-perris/.

Elizabeth Perris served as a U.S. bankruptcy judge in the District of Oregon for 31 years. Her accomplishments are stunning. Respected judge, educator to judges, lawyers, and students, pro bono leader—Elizabeth Perris did it all. Her legacy through her work is both local and national.

Family and Youth

Allen and Joan Perris with their first child, Elizabeth.

Perris was born in Dayton, Ohio in September 1951 to Allen and Joan Perris.  She is the oldest in a family of two daughters and a son.  As a young child, she moved with her family to Southern California where her father found work in real estate. She loved that she could swim and skateboard for most of the year. Her family moved to the San Francisco suburb of San Mateo when she was in high school.

The summer after Perris’s first year in high school, she participated in a residential six-week-long program at Stanford run by an organization called the Junior Statesmen of America. Roughly eighty teenagers from all over California learned about government and economics. “It was very intense. I mean, we stayed up late. We studied and we talked. It was a little taste of what college would be like, although you could not sustain the level of energy we sustained for six weeks through a school year. But it was kind of an eye opener that it’s a bigger world out there.”

Perris finished high school when she was 16 years old. She also found time to work during high school. Her first job was with Polaroid as a file clerk.  She had a summer job working for a company that produced large print books for the visually impaired, cutting up texts and sending pages out to a printer to enlarge the print, then hole-punching the pages and putting them in binders.  Hers was, as she said, a typical 1950s three-child family upbringing. She recalls in her oral history, “I can’t say that we were terribly put-upon children. Our main job was to do a good job in school and to be responsible kids.”

College and Law School

A just barely 17-year-old Freshman at Berkeley

Perris did her undergraduate work at the University of California Berkeley.  Her first year at Berkeley, when she had just turned 17 years old, was especially formative.  She lived in a 20-person co-op housing arrangement, where she made many great friends.  She continues to stay in touch with six of them on a regular basis.

Perris’s time at Berkeley was marked by student protests and political activity. Perris was used to lively political debates, as she grew up in a “split” household—one of her parents was a Democrat while the other was a Republican. She enjoyed listening to speakers and watching the protests but was mainly an observer during the unrest rather than a participant. “At one point, I remember sitting in a classroom and the protestors came by. They started throwing rocks through the windows. The professor said, ‘Oh I think we better move over closer to the wall.’  But that’s how it was my first year, so I was kind of surprised my second year when things calmed down and you actually had to do all the work and there wasn’t quite as much excitement on campus.” She decided early on that she wanted to study criminology, but she enjoyed many other classes including zoology, astronomy, and other liberal arts courses. By her junior year at Berkeley, Perris decided she wanted to go to law school. She thought that the law was very practical, and it was flexible, providing lots of choices when you had your degree.  Her interest in the law was buttressed by an attorney she heard speak at Berkeley about her work fighting employment discrimination.

Graduation from UC Davis Law School, 1975.

After living in the Bay Area for many years, the University of California Davis was her first choice for law school. When she did not get in, she decided to go to Willamette University College of Law in Salem, Oregon. Perris said going to Willamette and living in Salem was “like getting into a time machine and going backwards.” She remembers there were 13 women in her class at Willamette.  Although that was a small minority of the class, Perris noted it was a large improvement over the previous years. After one year at Willamette, she fulfilled her dream of going to UC Davis by transferring there for the balance of law school. Perris graduated from UC Davis Law School in 1975.