The Willamette Lawyer Interview
Amanda Marshall, JD’95
Oregon’s 27th U.S. Attorney
Last year President Obama chose Amanda Marshall JD’95 to be Oregon’s 27th U.S. Attorney. Marshall worked as a deputy district attorney in Coos County and as a supervisor in the child advocacy section of the Oregon Department of Justice. But before that, she was a law student at Willamette. In this web-only interview, Marshall talks about the law school’s China program, her job as a Tribal Court Clerk for the Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde and why Willamette has been key to her successful legal career. For more on Amanda Marshall, including her work on marijuana prosecutions and fighting sex trafficking, please to go to: willamette.edu/wucl/internal/alumni/lawyer.
Q: Let’s talk about your background. You’ve described it as a free-spirited life: moving around a lot, spending time in a communal living situation, going to Grateful Dead concerts. Was it really that carefree?
A: Well, you never like moving when you’re a kid. I’m a pretty social person, I have strong friendships, and as I got older it got more difficult. The move from Tucson, Arizona when I was 12 I remember being particularly painful. My mother was working most of my life outside the home, I had a younger sister, (and) those things could be challenging. But I also think they are things that build character, build strength. Looking back, I think they made me make friends a little more easily, build relationships a little more easily and successfully because I was used to having to do that – and to do that again and again.
Q: You’ve discussed publicly your sister’s battle with drug addiction. How did you avoid that fate for yourself?
A: My sister did have struggles with drug addiction, but I would also say that, in my mind, she’s the most special person I know in the entire world. She’s my absolute hero. I don’t think there’s anyone on earth I admire more than I admire her. She runs a drug and alcohol treatment center, she’s incredible successful, her life is completely dedicated to serving and saving people. And she does it better than anyone I know. I find myself often comparing myself to her and feeling that I come up short because she’s much more tolerant and less judgmental. I constantly talk to her and hear her say something and think, ‘Wow, you’re a better person than me.’
I always had the experience of having adults who cared about me and took an interest in me and mentored me. That includes my parents; I never had a day in life where I didn’t think my parents loved me more than anything in the world. I was a kid that was told every day by my mom that I could be the president, that I could do anything I wanted to do, that she expected great things from me, and certainly my sister had that too. I’ve always been a person who thinks that ‘I can,’ and ‘we can,’ and ‘why not?’ and ‘don’t stop just because somebody tells me it can’t be done.’ I just think most things in life are really not that hard until you get in your own way.
Q: What drew you to law school?
A: One of the reasons I went to law school was because I love the law. And I think that’s partly because when I was a kid, at times I felt a little out of control. As an adult I found refuge in the law. I loved the logic of the law. I loved law school and learning about the common law and statutory law and the framework and the rules and why they were formed and how they came together and the idea that they apply to everybody equally and that you can count on them. That gave me so much solace. I was always the kid that would get in an argument with my parents or my teachers about the application of a rule. I was the person in my group of friends that would mediate out their disputes and be the arbiter of what was fair and just. I mean, I was just always drawn to the idea that rules need to be followed because that’s what keeps our society equal, safe, and fairly accessible to everybody.
Q: Why did you choose Willamette?
A: I’d applied to Lewis and Clark and to (University of California ) Hastings (College of the Law). When I went to tour all three of the schools, Willamette had just built the Truman Wesley legal center, so it was at the time just a beautiful state-of- the-art facility. I remember being impressed by the computer lounge; it was 1992, I didn’t have a computer. Dean Misner and the student body president, and somebody else met me, took me to lunch at Goudy Commons, they were just great. The experience was far superior at Willamette in terms of that recruitment trip. The other thing that happened was I got a job at Willamette so that helped me to pay for school as a first-year.
Q: What did you learn inside and outside of the classroom at Willamette that you feel eventually prepared you for the job you have now?
A; Inside the classroom I learned all the things you learn in law school about how to analyze cases and arguments and how to think beyond the four corners of the text, and how important context and history is, especially Court of Appeals and Supreme Court decisions. I learned to work hard, I learned to be organized, I learned time management because I worked all through law school, at least 20 hours a week the whole time.
The other thing I got from Willamette was I went to China as part of the Willamette China program. That was a critical point in my educational development. It had a huge effect. I don’t think there’s anything else that impacts people like spending time in a foreign country with people who are different from you in terms of broadening your mind, the experiences that you have. You test yourself, you’re stretched in terms of being exposed to things you’ve never been exposed to.
One of the things I really like about Willamette is the professors are teachers. They’re invested in the school, they’re not lawyers that show up and teach a class. And so there’s that consistency over the years, people that are invested in the school. When I got back there many of them are still there.
Q: In law school, you were a Tribal Court Clerk for the Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde Community of Oregon around the time the tribe was receiving federal recognition. What was it like to be there at that historical moment?
A: The tribal government and most of the tribal offices were housed in four modular buildings. And the tribal court and the tribal council shared a room in one of the modular trailers. I shared an office with the chief judge who worked part time. It was a time when a lot of legislation was happening. It was so great to be involved in developing forms and procedures that would carry the tribal court through its infancy and into its expansion. It’s overwhelming to me to go out to the tribe now and see the amazing growth and all of the benefits that have been brought to people of not only the tribe but the whole Grand Ronde community. They have a Head Start program, they have a gym, they have elder housing, they have a health clinic, they have a senior center, they have a Life Flight pad, they’ve given all kinds of money to all kinds of programs in Oregon. That’s a different story for the people in that community than 20 years ago. Their narrative has really been changed.
I met with tribal council prior to being nominated for U.S. Attorney to tell them that I was seeking the nomination. Just walking into their amazing tribal governance center, and the tribal council chambers, and seeing the people around the table, most of whom I knew --- it choked me up. They presented me with a necklace and their support. And it felt to me like, “Wow, we’ve all really come a very long way.”
Q: What were some of the biggest challenges the tribe faced?
A: Child welfare was a huge priority for the tribe. They were very mindful and intentional. They had caseworkers who went out and did investigations, we did a lot of transfer of jurisdiction from state court to tribal court. I don’t know if I understood then how significant that was. I certainly came to understand it once I was a child welfare lawyers and saw that that was not necessarily the norm.
Q: You spent five years as a Coos County prosecutor. Some horrific cases crossed your desk. Did you ever feel so discouraged or disgusted by what you saw that you wanted to quit?
A: We had a mass murder in Bandon when I’d been there about three months. (A man) slaughtered a family of five, including two little kids. He killed the whole family with a knife in a small trailer. So it was a gruesome, blood-soaked scene. It was my first homicide. I went as a lawyer to advise the police until other lawyers could get on site. I remember talking to my mom after that and she was so upset, (and she said), “I just don’t want to think about you being exposed to this and I’m afraid it’s going to damage you, your psyche and your person.” My response is that I haven’t ever had those impacts. There are prosecutors and investigators who have had post-traumatic stress diagnoses from just dealing with those cases and being exposed to those images. For whatever reason it just hasn’t ever impacted me in some way. That’s not to say I don’t get angry or disgusted or upset at what people do to other human beings, or even animals. But it motivates me, it drives me forward. Once I know it, I can’t un-know it. To know and do nothing is not an option.
We went from not filing a lot of cases, not taking a lot of things to trial, not having a really proactive response, to having a family violence council, working collaboratively with the battered women’s shelter, having a team with an advocate and investigator and lawyer, creating a protocol and a policy for zero tolerance, and going from most cases going to trial to a 95 percent guilty plea rate over the course of 5 years.
Q: What would you say to graduates who want to follow your path?
A: I do think that 90 percent of life is showing up, working hard and doing what’s in front of you and being open to what’s next. I don’t feel like any of us ever have total control over what happens. So my advice to anybody, no matter what it is that they want to do, is to have integrity, treat people with dignity and respect, form good relationships, and (have) a reputation where people know who you are and they support you, and then people approach you with opportunities. Because they believe in what you do, they trust you and they know that you’re highly competent. And that’s sort of the way I feel it’s worked out for me in my life. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking what’s next for me. Or trying to strategically plan like a chessboard my every move and everything is a steppingstone to this next thing. I don’t do that at all. I really try to live in the present, and do the work that’s in front of me, do the best I can every day, and support the people that are around me and then they support me in return, and be open to what’s next.
Q: Finish this sentence: My success as a prosecutor was because of Willamette, in particular because…
A: When I was at Willamette I really didn’t know that I wanted to be a prosecutor. My favorite classes were not the classes that relate to being a being a prosecutor. I enjoyed evidence but it wasn’t my favorite class. My third year in law school I was applying to go to work for tribes. And I was working for Grand Ronde. And the tribal attorney, Mike Mason, sat me down and told me I should not apply for tribes. He said there are two types of lawyers -- trial lawyers and everybody else. Less than 1 percent of lawyers are trial lawyers. And you’re one of them. And you should go work for a public defender’s office or a district attorney’s office and get trial experience and see what that’s like and if you want to come back and be a tribal attorney, that’s fine but don’t limit yourself because that’s all that you’ve known and you will become very tunnel visioined and sort of specialized and not marketable. I went to the career center and said I need to go to a DA’s office or a public defender’s office. And then I started talking to other people that were prosecutors and defense attorneys because it never occurred to me that that’s what I wanted to do. And I started trying to find out what it was about, and the advice I was given by those folks was, “Go to a small county because you will get so much more experience so much more quickly.” And I applied at both the southwest Oregon defender’s office and the Coos County District Attorney’s office, and didn’t get an interview at the public defender’s office and got an interview at the district attorney’s office. And I went down to Coos County, and I was the last interview, and the DA and chief deputy followed me out to my truck and offered me the job before I left the town.
I would never be the U.S. Attorney if I hadn’t gone to Willamette. See how things happen? Follow your heart. Don’t do what you think you should do; do what you really feel is the best thing for you in that moment.
Amanda Marshall, JD’95
“I like trials against very good attorneys that raise your level of practice.”
Related Resources: Willamette Lawyer
Fall 2012 Vol. XII, No. 2
- The Willamette Lawyer Interview (Note: web version)