Incoming Linn County Circuit Judge Fay Stetz-Waters is a long way from the tough Baltimore neighborhood she called home as a child, and a long way from her service in the United States Marine Corps.
Sipping tea at Sweet Red Bistro in Albany recently, she is clearly right at home in the city she came to 10 years ago with her wife, Karelia.
Gov. Kate Brown on Oct. 19 appointed Stetz-Waters to be the new Linn County Circuit Court judge, filling a vacancy created by the June retirement of Judge Carol R. Bispham Hashagen. The appointment fills the position until the general election in May.
The appointment, says Stetz-Waters, was a surprise, and is something to which she has aspired in her career. In fact, she says her legal career, and her move to Albany, can both be traced to experiences she had back East. It was there, outside Hartford, Connecticut while working as a 911 dispatcher and taking classes at the community college, that a police officer friend suggested she go to law school.
"I had never thought about it at all," she said. "That was not something anyone in my family did."
Stetz-Waters explained how the death of her father at 17 left her lost, and so she joined the Marines to find structure, and to get outside. She got both as a Marine, spending four years as a radio operator stationed in North Carolina. After the Marines, while in school at Trinity College, where she earned a history degree, she met Karelia, an Oregon native from the Willamette Valley who was working on her master's degree. Karelia wanted to move back home to Oregon, so with that in mind, Stetz-Waters applied to law schools in Oregon, and earned her Juris Doctor from Lewis and Clark College in 2005.
Her legal career really began while she was a student at Lewis and Clark. She has worked as a hearings officer at the Oregon Board of Parole and Post-Prison Supervision, and also worked as an administrative law judge in the state's Office of Administrative Hearings, adjudicating cases for the Employment Department.
But her very first job as a lawyer was at Legal Aid in Albany, representing indigent clients in civil cases.
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Preparing for her post as a circuit judge, Stetz-Waters says the sum total of her prior legal work will let her bring fair and equitable treatment to all the cases she hears.
"My role is to ensure due process of the law," she said. "It is to make sure everyone is treated equal, regardless of party, race, or social standing."
Of course, as a judge in Linn County, she'll be the new kid on the block. But if her past is any indication, overcoming adversity and ignoring naysayers is something she has always been able to do.
"When I joined the Marines, people said, 'You can't do that,'" she said. "Do you know how hard that is?"
Later, when she joined a semi-pro rugby league in college, she says people told her she was going to be the slowpoke, that she would hold the team back. But that, as well, turned out not to be the case.
As she prepares to take the bench, she reflects on the importance of the law in society, and on the weight of her new post.
"I have to apply the law, and do so completely," she said. "We agree to be civil. People have to have faith in our judicial system."