Raising the bar: U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan hails from Issaquah

May 18, 2010

By Warren Kagarise

Jenny Durkan, U.S. attorney for Western Washington, talks in her office at the federal courthouse in downtown Seattle about her role as the top federal prosecutor in the region. By Greg Farrar

The future U.S. attorney for Western Washington — the top federal prosecutor in the region — had a singular goal as a girl growing up in then-rural Issaquah.

“I always wanted to be a lawyer, from the time I was very, very young — grade school,” Jenny Durkan recalled. “When I was in grade school, my sister and I always used to talk about how we wanted to be lawyers, and I imagined being kind of a storefront-type lawyer.”

President Obama instead picked the daughter of influential state Sen. Martin Durkan for U.S. attorney last May.

Martin and Lorraine “Lolly” Durkan raised eight children near Lake Sammamish. Jenny Durkan stood out as the first girl to become a Sunset Elementary School safety patrol member.

Nationwide, 93 U.S. attorneys prosecute federal crimes and represent the federal government in their districts. Durkan works from a fifth-floor office at the postmodern courthouse in downtown Seattle.

“As my mother said when I graduated from law school, ‘Finally, someone is going to pay you to argue,’” she recalled. “I think I had a natural affinity for debate.”

Durkan, 52, broke ground as the first openly gay U.S. attorney. The self-described “law geek” appreciates the historic nature of the role, but said the quality of the cases during her tenure will define her legacy.

‘Majesty in the marble’

The post feels like a hand-in-glove fit for a girl raised on TV crime dramas and instilled with a deep respect for jurisprudence.

Durkan aspired to be a lawyer “partly because my dad was in law, partly because I loved watching ‘Perry Mason,’ partly just because I liked to debate and argue.”

Even Perry Mason lost sometimes.

The television lawyer inspired Durkan early. The future U.S. attorney sat through untold last-minute acquittals — although she had other ideas.

“She always came up with ideas to get the bad guy,” her sister Ryan Durkan, a prominent Seattle land-use attorney, recalled. “She always thought she could do it better.”

Reality often outshone fantasy. Sometimes, Jenny Durkan accompanied her attorney father to the courthouse.

“I loved the sense of majesty in the marble, I loved that there were people there and the impact it had on their lives,” she said. “I was kind of in awe of the formality of it.”

Durkan and the other children also rotated through stints as Capitol pages. The children learned how to navigate the Capitol and picked up important lessons about state government.

“I have a very strong appreciation for the work that people in Olympia do, and how important the job is,” she said.

Martin Durkan campaigned for governor in 1968 and 1972, but fell short in the Democratic primary both times.

Ryan Durkan recalls the campaigns as rapid-fire sequences of fairs, parades, doorbelling, fundraisers — and, the least appealing ritual, commercials.

“I can remember one time when they tied up a little rowboat on Lake Sammamish and we spent all day pretending we were fishing,” Jenny Durkan said. “And my sister, who got filmed in one of the ads in her bathing suit, never forgave him because it was, you know, those hard years.”

The last frontier

Law school, the obvious next step, beckoned Durkan as a University of Notre Dame senior.

“For whatever reason, I kind of stopped and said, ‘Do I really want to be a lawyer because I want to be a lawyer, or is it because my dad and uncle have been lawyers?’” she recalled. “My sister was in law school by that time, and I thought, you know, maybe I should do something different and just make sure that it’s really the path I want to take.”

Instead, she signed up for a Jesuit service program and trekked to St. Mary’s, Alaska, a remote hamlet near the confluence of the Yukon and Andreafsky rivers. Population: 120.

Durkan taught high school English in the Yup’ik Eskimo community. The former center at Forest Ridge School of the Sacred Heart coached girls basketball, too. She recalled boarding sparrow-sized Cessnas to fly to other frontier outposts for games.

“Alaska was great,” she said. “It was one of the best experiences I’ve had. It was really a terrific experience to get out of my own culture and into a different culture, to live in just a tiny, tiny, little town.”

Law school beckoned again two years later. Durkan returned to Seattle to attend the University of Washington.

She soon landed a position at the King County Office of the Public Defender. Through some admittedly amateurish cross-examination, Durkan helped acquit a man on a public urination charge.

Not long after the trial, panhandlers surrounded Durkan and some female friends — and demanded money — during a stroll through Pioneer Square.

“All of the sudden I hear this, ‘Hey! Leave her alone! She was my lawyer,’” she recalled. “And sure enough, there was the guy from the public-urination charge.”

The panhandlers allowed the women to pass unharmed. Durkan learned a lesson from the incident: “Sometimes, it helps to have friends in low places.”

‘A lawyer’s lawyer’

Throughout a 25-year career, Durkan also provided legal advice and counsel to boldface names. Clients sought her out for some of the highest-profile cases in state history.

In the past, she served as a confidante to former Gov. Mike Lowry and Gov. Chris Gregoire.

“Jenny Durkan is a brilliant attorney, and most important, a dedicated public servant,” Gregoire said. “Jenny has a tremendous amount of integrity and brings that and her steadfast values to everything she pursues.”

Durkan signed on to help Lowry just before he became embroiled in a sexual-harassment scandal 15 years ago. The incident led Lowry — a former campaign aide for Martin Durkan — to step aside after a single term.

Jenny Durkan, a lifelong Democrat, represented the Democratic Party in the Republican court challenge to the paper-thin majority Gregoire received in the 2004 gubernatorial election. Durkan delivered the decisive closing argument days after her father died.

“Jenny is a lawyer’s lawyer, because she can be an advocate and still respect the opposite point of view,” U.S. District Court Judge Marsha J. Pechman said. “In other words, it’s never personal for Jenny.”

Longtime friend and former law partner Jeffery Robinson describes the trait as “an almost maniacal desire to achieve fairness.”

Durkan also helped prompt needed reform. The attorney represented the family of Stan Stevenson, a retired Seattle firefighter stabbed to death by a schizophrenic man just released from the King County Jail. The tragedy led to the creation of the King County Mental Health Court.

Colleagues and former clients said Durkan brings a keen understanding of the law to courtrooms, and offers a hearty laugh to deflate tense situations.

“It’s no wonder she’s been so successful, and no surprise she was appointed U.S. attorney,” Gregoire continued in a response to e-mailed questions. “Her legal expertise and skills are beyond reproach and serve her, and the people of this state, well.”

Beyond politics

But links to the Democratic Party and the Governor’s Mansion raised questions last year about how partisan ties might affect how Durkan made decisions as U.S. attorney.

Former U.S. attorneys in the district said past partisanship soon fades into the background.

“They said the same thing about me,” former U.S. Attorney Mike McKay said. “They said, ‘This guy is too political to be U.S. attorney.’”

Before the nomination, he helped elect George H.W. Bush as president and Norm Maleng as King County prosecutor. Bush later appointed McKay as U.S. attorney.

McKay, a longtime friend of the current U.S. attorney, repeated a joke he often makes about Durkan: “I would trust her with my life, but not with my vote.”

The office can be sensitive to political currents. U.S. Department of Justice officials fired local U.S. Attorney John McKay — a longtime Durkan family friend and the brother of Mike McKay — and seven other federal prosecutors in late 2006.

John McKay said he knows Durkan will keep her actions as U.S. attorney detached from politics.

“While she wields enormous power, she is never going to strike a foul blow,” he said.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, the powerful Washington Democrat, recommended Durkan for the post last spring. Obama appointed Durkan to the office last May, and senators confirmed the appointment in September.

“I think she came to this job knowing that, being a public prosecutor, to leave the politics and all of the partisan things at the doorstep,” U.S. District Court Chief Judge Robert Lasnik said.

Former Yakima County prosecutor and Sammamish resident Jeffrey Sullivan preceded Durkan as U.S. attorney.

“I think the transition has been very smooth, and that she has a very good grasp of the office and working with the attorneys and federal and state law enforcement,” he said.

Support and defend

The top federal prosecutor in Western Washington handles a thick portfolio — cases including national security, counterterrorism, cybercrime, environmental infractions, and financial and mortgage fraud.

The district sprawls from the peaks of the Cascades to the Pacific, from the Columbia River to the Canadian border, encompassing 19 counties, about 25,000 square miles and almost 5 million people.

Directives come from the other Washington, so the 93 U.S. attorneys “take the broad brush priorities and then make sure that they are tailored to do what’s best for the people in your district,” Durkan said.

John McKay said federal prosecutors should be mindful of local concerns, too.

“Not everything crafted in Washington, D.C., works perfectly in Western Washington, and you have to be able to do that well,” he said.

Durkan also serves on the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee — a group of 15 U.S. attorneys selected by Attorney General Eric Holder. Durkan leads the cybercrime and intellectual property subcommittee, a natural fit for a self-proclaimed early adopter — hello, iPad — and the U.S. attorney in a tech-centric district.

“Any fraud that used to happen on the streets is going to happen on the Web,” she said. “And right now, it’s almost a wide-open frontier.”

Barbara Endicott-Popovsky, director of the Center for Information Assurance and Cybersecurity at the UW, lauded the Obama administration for tackling cybercrime.

“The problem is huge,” she said. “The average person doesn’t realize how bad the problem is on the Internet.”

Despite the advances, Durkan said the role of the U.S. attorney has remained straightforward.

“We have a number of tools in our belt and we hope to be able to use them all,” she said. “We will prosecute criminals. We will also use our civil powers of enforcement, and we will look for as many ways as we can to bring about public change for public good.”

‘The perfect fit’

The national spotlight focused on Durkan last year as the first openly gay U.S. attorney.

“I never like to think of myself as the trailblazer, but I think that it’s important for people to see that people of all different backgrounds and all different circumstances can succeed, can move public policy forward and can serve as good role models,” she said.

Durkan and her partner live in Seattle with their two sons.

Tara Borelli, staff attorney in the western regional office for Lambda Legal, a national gay rights group, lauded the landmark appointment.

“We believe that it’s important that all parts of government contain people from all ranges of society,” she said.

If Obama wins re-election, the president could tap Durkan for another term. The U.S. attorney calls the role “the perfect fit for me.”

But she has other options, too. Before the appointment as U.S. attorney, she had been mentioned as a possible candidate for state attorney general and, after Maleng died in 2007, for King County prosecutor.

Robinson and other old friends long imagined Durkan in a public role, but he said speculation about her next move often proves fruitless.

“I know that it will be something that’s challenging,” he said. “I know that it will be something that will have a positive impact and I know it will be something that the community and her friends can be proud of.”

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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One Response to “Raising the bar: U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan hails from Issaquah”

  1. U.S. attorney, Issaquah native, receives top honor : The Issaquah Press – News, Sports, Classifieds in Issaquah, WA on April 2nd, 2011 2:00 pm

    […] once said she “always wanted to be a lawyer” and, after graduating from the University of Washington School of Law, embarked on a successful […]

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