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

Starting a Legal Career

Following graduation, her first job was working with a general practitioner. The firm had the contract to do public defender work. The experience made her realize she did not want to do criminal law. Perris decided she wanted to practice in an area where “money was the measure.” Perris originally took the California bar exam, thinking at the time she would remain in California. However, her stay in California would come to an end as she decided to move to Oregon to take advantage of the outdoor opportunities. She took the winter bar exam in Oregon. To make ends meet while she was studying for the bar, she worked preparing tax returns.

Perris’ first job in Oregon after successfully passing the bar was with the bankruptcy court. In 1976, while awaiting the bar results, she was hired as the first paid law clerk for three of the bankruptcy judges, Judges Donal Sullivan, Henry Hess, and Folger Johnson.  The court had no law clerk position, so the judges convinced the administrative office to let them hire Perris as a “closing clerk,” which was a clerical position and have her perform the work of a law clerk. She enjoyed working for all three of the judges; she remembers this experience fondly. And she found bankruptcy to be fascinating. It had many of the elements in the law that she enjoyed: It was statutorily based, the issues were about money, and there were rules. Her work for the court included writing memos and sitting through trials. She feels fortunate to have been able to start her legal career with the bankruptcy court at the historic Pioneer Courthouse. During her tenure as a law clerk at the court, the court moved from the Pioneer Courthouse to its current location in a private office building.

After leaving the bankruptcy court, her first legal practice job was with the firm of McMenamin, Joseph, and Herrell. She chose the firm because it had a healthy bankruptcy practice, along with probate, domestic relations, and workers’ compensation. Shortly after Perris joined the firm, Stephen Herrell–the partner who had the bankruptcy practice (and a future Multnomah County circuit judge), had a heart attack. Perris jumped into the fray and started picking up a significant amount of his bankruptcy work. She also became a bankruptcy trustee, a position she continued to hold through her practice career. She remembers that bankruptcy practice was an expanding field, due to the new Bankruptcy Code paired with a difficult economic climate in Oregon.  There was lots of bankruptcy work to be found, and Perris was among the many young lawyers who seized the opportunity.  In early 1983, Perris and Ward Greene left the firm and started their own even smaller firm. They decided to specialize in commercial and business law.  Perris did the bankruptcy work while Greene did more of the state court work.

Work and Life Changes

Perris had the unique experience of working through several significant changes to the bankruptcy system. The Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1978 brought about a revised Bankruptcy Code.  Then in 1982 the first big change occurred. The Supreme Court ruled in the Marathon Oil case that the bankruptcy jurisdictional provisions of the Code were unconstitutional. It was a time of great uncertainty in the bankruptcy world. Congress promptly went about passing legislation to fix the problem. Unfortunately, the timing of the Marathon case coincided with Perris’s selection to the bankruptcy bench in late 1983. At that time, she was appointed by the district court rather than the court of appeals as is now customary. Perris recalls the process in her oral history. “First of all, it was one screening. You went for one interview. There were a few people: the chief district judge or somebody he or she appoints and a few lawyers they appoint. They just made a decision. You sent them a resume, not their form. I sent them a two- or three-page resume. We had a nice chat for 30 minutes and two or three weeks later, from the time I applied, to the time I got the call from the district judge telling me I had got it, subject to an F.B.I. check.”

Perris was set to begin her judgeship April 1, 1984, when the system’s revamping was complete. Her predecessor, Judge Folger Johnson, wanted to serve to the end of the transition. Three days before her planned investiture and Judge Johnson’s retirement celebration (which was planned as a combined event), the transition to the new jurisdictional system was extended by 30 days. Perris had given up her law practice a month earlier and now she was caught in limbo. After weeks of uncertainty, she was finally sworn in, started her judgeship, and was hearing cases by July 1984. She was 32 years old and had been practicing bankruptcy law since 1977.

1984 was momentous for another reason. Elizabeth Perris started a relationship with the woman who would be her life partner and eventually her wife.  She had been friends with Beverly Schnabel since 1979. Schnabel came to Portland in 1970 after attending Grinnell College in Iowa. She and her friends founded a free women’s health clinic and a halfway house for incarcerated women. She earned B.S. and M.S. degrees in audiology at Portland State University and later her doctorate.  Judge Perris recalls, “I actually had more time to live my life in an orderly fashion since I’ve been a judge than I did when I was a lawyer. As a lawyer, it’s crisis after crisis…. We were friends for five years before we got together. We did lots of camping, and skiing, and hiking, and that sort of thing. Of course, times were pretty different…. If you told me in 1984 that someday we’d be legally married and she would have benefits, I would have laughed at you. Because I got to worry about whether I would pass the F.B.I. check in 1983, because I figured the F.B.I. would figure this out. It was not a secret.”