The legal community knew James F. Nelson as a longtime judge in Los Angeles whose principles and experience left their imprint on the criminal and juvenile systems.
On the national religious and human rights scene, as a member and for years chair of the national governing body of the Bahá’í Faith, he was a strong voice for unity, equality and spiritual values in society and a staunch defender of the beleaguered Bahá’í community in Iran.
The U.S. Bahá’í community knew him as an encouraging advocate for a way of life based on the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh, generous with his time at many conferences, retreats and other events, and opening his Los Angeles-area home to innumerable people inquiring about the Bahá’í Faith.
All those streams of dedication were reinforced by his 60-year marriage to Dorothy W. Nelson, a senior federal appeals judge and legal educator who served many years alongside him on the National Spiritual Assembly.
Jim Nelson passed away February 26, 2011, during a family celebration. He was 83 and had lived for a number of years in Pasadena, California.
In a letter of tribute, the National Spiritual Assembly wrote, “Much more than a colleague, to us Jim was, for so very many years, a leader and a guiding light — ever steady, ever reliable, admired as much for his great personal warmth, his loving kindness, his youthful vibrancy, and his unflagging zest for learning as for his sagacious judgment.”Born in 1927 in Los Angeles, Jim joined the Navy in 1945 and served in the Naval Reserve. Earning a bachelor’s degree at the University of California, Los Angeles, Jim went on to earn a law degree at Loyola University. He and Dorothy were married in 1950 while both were law students.
Some time after the Nelsons came in contact with the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith, which emphasize a spiritual approach to justice, both became members in 1954. They brought up two children as Bahá’ís.
Jim worked as a deputy district attorney; in private practice; and in the Los Angeles County court system as a juvenile justice referee and as a commissioner. In 1968 he was appointed as a Municipal Court judge, and was presiding judge of that system 1980–1989. High-profile cases for which his court held preliminary hearings included those of the death of actor John Belushi and the Night Stalker serial killings. He later served as a retired judge in Superior Court.
He was co-author of a revision of the manual for juvenile court procedures, and held membership in the California Judges Association, the American Judicature Society, and the American Bar Association.
For many years Jim served on the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Los Angeles, a nine-member body elected to oversee local activities of the Faith. He later served for some time on the Spiritual Assembly of nearby Pasadena. Highly active in teaching the principles of the Faith to interested people, for many years he and Dorothy held weekly fireside meetings for that purpose in their home.
He was appointed to serve on a variety of national and regional Bahá’í committees to foster teaching and education in the Faith for all ages.
On 25 occasions starting in 1959, the Bahá’ís of the Los Angeles area elected Jim as a delegate to the annual National Convention. In 1977 that convention elected him to the National Spiritual Assembly, the nine-member governing body for the U.S. Bahá’í community. He was a member of that Assembly until 1999, serving as chair for 18 of those years.
That position saw him representing the national Bahá’í community on a variety of stages, none more crucial than in the early 1980s, when Bahá’í’s in Iran were facing deadly persecution in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Jim was part of delegations of the National Spiritual Assembly in 1982 and 1984 testifying before the Human Rights Subcommittee of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee about executions, imprisonments, mass firings and other activities that amounted to a systematic campaign to exterminate the Bahá’í Faith in Iran. “We American Bahá’ís, who live in freedom, have the duty of alerting the world,” he told the committee on the Assembly’s behalf in 1984. Afterward those persecutions abated but have not stopped.He also served as an ambassador for the Faith and its message of unity on a number of occasions, not least presenting the 1985 statement of the Bahá’í International Community “The Promise of World Peace” to President Ronald Reagan as well as to highly placed religious leaders and a number of fellow judges. In 1996 he was designated the Bahá’í representative on the Council of Presidents for the World Conference on Religion and Peace/USA.
He took on a new role in the Faith starting in 2000, serving on the Regional Bahá’í Council for the Western States (and later the Southwestern States), a body that oversees growth and development of the Bahá’í community in a large section of the country.
Over the years he attended and spoke at many events to inspire and encourage Bahá’ís in the U.S. and beyond in such areas as building spiritual community, cultivating consultation, and socioeconomic development. With his wife, Dorothy, he was among principal supporters of the Bahá’í Chair for World Peace at the University of Maryland, an endowed professorship inaugurated in 1993.
He also participated in public events including panels and symposia on the relevance of religious life in society and the law. “Religion is already a dynamic force in a changing society,” Jim said at an interfaith panel discussion in 2006 that drew more than 30 leaders of varied faiths in Los Angeles. “Unfortunately, the dynamic tends to be of division, separation, exclusivity. We have to change that dynamic.”
He was a licensed private airplane pilot, a certified scuba diver and an avid fisherman.
James F. Nelson’s survivors include his wife, Judge Dorothy W. Nelson; a daughter, Lorna Jean Nelson; a son, Franklin Nelson; and a granddaughter, all of California.
Information from files and back issues of The American Bahá’í, family members, the Los Angeles Times and Episcopal News Service