Oregon State University honors program graduate – and the Honors College’s 2023 OSU Alumni Association Alumni Fellow – Judge Mary Deits Rousseau, ’71, has lived a life committed to public service. She is a trailblazer for women in law and a dedicated advocate for equality in the judicial system. Rousseau credits her time at Oregon State University for setting her on a path towards working for the general good, a path that continues to this day.
Born in Portland, Rousseau graduated high school in Medford. During her four years studying at Oregon State, she explored liberal arts topics such as journalism and law and participated in Oregon State University’s original honors program, which emerged out of the College of Science in 1966 and offered some of the same opportunities as the Honors College that exists today and was established as a degree-granting college in 1995. Recalling the program decades later, she says, “I don’t mean this as a criticism, but it wasn’t much. We had a few additional classes, but it was not a standalone college.”
As she approached graduation, one of Rousseau’s business law professors encouraged her to pursue law school, and after Rousseau graduated with a B.A. in Sociology, she began to pursue her juris doctor at Willamette University. “At that time, there weren’t many women lawyers,” she says. “I think my class of 125 students had four or five women.” Hiring practices at the time reflected this. “It was honestly pretty hard to get hired back then [if you were a woman] even if you did well in law school. Interestingly, the only entities that were pretty much hiring women were public entities, so I got offers from the Attorney General’s office and from the State Public Defender.”
These opportunities, though, were still rare, and after receiving her law degree and passing the Oregon State Bar in 1974, Rousseau became just the third woman to work as an assistant attorney general at the Oregon Department of Justice. During her 12-year career in the Oregon attorney general’s office, Rousseau worked on a wide variety of legal issues. Then, at the age of 36, she started to contemplate a career change. “I think you should sort of change jobs every at least 20 years,” she say. She realized this ambition – and blazed a new trail – when Oregon Governor Victor Atiyeh appointed Rousseau to the Oregon Court of Appeals in 1986, only the second woman to hold one of these positions. “The stars aligned, and I was appointed, much to my shock,” she remembers. In 1997, she became one of the first women in the U.S. to be named the chief judge of a state court of appeals. She also served as President of the National Chief Judges Association.
During her time as chief judge of the court, Rousseau instituted a range of reforms and programs designed to make legal processes more equitable and accessible. The Oregon Appellate Settlement Program dramatically reduced caseload backlog in Oregon, becoming a national model. She also led outreach efforts that gave school-aged children opportunities to engage with the courts and legal professionals. These had an educational component, but they also gave populations underrepresented in the field the chance to connect with role models and imagine new career pathways.
Rousseau formally retired in 2004, but she is still an active senior judge focusing on private arbitration and mediation. She also remains highly involved in her community and in the university that helped launch her career. Rousseau is a “big Beaver fan” and a proud season ticket holder for multiple Oregon State sports teams. And, since 2019, she has served on the Honors College’s Board of Regents, providing guidance and financial support for the college. She has greatly enjoyed engaging with honors and seeing how it has blossomed from the small program she was in decades ago. Oregon State honors programming and the university as a whole have grown to exceed anything she would have expected 50 years ago.
Rousseau’s commitment to the Honors College, Oregon State University and the broader state of Oregon reflects a deep and abiding commitment to public service for all Oregonians, even through professional changes. This impact is precisely what the Alumni Fellows awards are designed to recognize, providing models for other alumni and current students. “It’s important to let yourself evolve,” she advises. “I did it throughout college and my career, and I still do. You do not have to know what you want to do in high school or college. It is okay to be patient and just evolve at your own pace.”
By Jax Richards, Honors College student writer