You get a real whiff of federal power when you visit the chief law enforcement officer for Western Washington. First, you have to pass through a security screening before riding up the elevator to her office in the gleaming federal courthouse in downtown Seattle. From there, to reach the inner offices, a code must be entered on a numeric keypad. The receptionist is separated from the waiting room by bulletproof glass. But once the door opens, everything changes. Jenny Durkan, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington and 1985 graduate of the UW School of Law, is warm, gracious and hospitable. It’s quite a jarring contrast to the chilly décor of the waiting room. Durkan fetches coffee for a visitor herself, which is surprising given that she oversees a staff of about 150. These include lawyers and investigators who research and prosecute cases developed by federal law enforcement agencies such as the FBI and the DEA. With her ready smile and full-throated chortle over a good joke, Durkan is, well, unexpectedly jovial for someone who spends her days tackling terrorism, gun violence and the politically thorny investigation of the Seattle Police Department for a pattern of excessive force.
That particular headline-grabbing investigation, which began in 2011, partly at the request of community groups who complained about the way the police treated them, says a lot about who Jenny Durkan is. Durkan and her team pursued the investigation even when city and police department officials turned churlish in public meetings characterized, as The Seattle Times reported, by raised voices and bitter accusations.
This summer, a group of officers sued Durkan’s office, claiming the new use-of-force policies developed by her staff and the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division put police at risk when they are carrying out their jobs. Durkan, who will talk to anyone but has never backed down from a fight, said she would be happy to hear their concerns but also opined that the suit would be thrown out as groundless. “Reform is under way,” she told The Times in typical straight-shooter fashion. “Get on the train or leave.”
“For Jenny, it’s about seeing that justice is done,” says Christine Gregoire, ’71, former two-term governor of Washington. Gregoire is in a position to know; she and Durkan have known each other for decades and worked together on occasion. For instance, Durkan was Gregoire’s counsel when Dino Rossi challenged Gregoire in court in 2004 after losing one of the closest gubernatorial races in the nation’s history by 129 votes.
After the election, Durkan spent May of 2005 in Chelan County Superior Court fighting on Gregoire’s behalf. That legal battle gives another glimpse into Durkan’s character. She was preparing to cross-examine an important witness when she received word that her father, former State Sen. Martin Durkan, ’53, had died in a Maui hospital. Even though another attorney offered to substitute for her, Durkan declined and stayed on the case. “She stayed and saw the case through because she knew that’s what her father would have wanted,” recalls Anne Fennessy, communications director for then-Gov. Mike Lowry when Durkan was the governor’s legal counsel. In the Chelan case, Durkan and her fellow attorneys prevailed, confirming Gregoire’s election as Washington’s 22nd governor. (Rossi had contended that felons were allowed to vote but after four depositions were taken from four felons, it turned out that all four had voted for him, not Gregoire).
Durkan and Gregoire share more than party affiliation and UW alumni status: they both were inspired by John F. Kennedy’s call to service. By happenstance, Durkan was in New York City when some Kennedy effects were auctioned and she bought some dishes owned by President and Jacqueline Kennedy. Years later, after Durkan’s parents died, Jenny and her siblings were going through their parents’ belongings when they found a box that contained letters from both Robert and John F. Kennedy. That was fitting, given that both the Kennedys and the Durkans were large, Catholic Democratic families devoted to public service.
President Obama nominated Durkan to be U.S. Attorney in May 2009. The U.S. Senate approved her unanimously and she was sworn in on Oct. 1 of that year before a crowd of fellow lawyers and the press. Former State Supreme Court Justice Bobbe Bridge, ’66, ’76, was in the crowd.
“Several people spoke about her in glowing terms but when she was about to give her inaugural speech, she said, ‘I know what you’re all thinking. How can it be that Jenny Durkan is a Fed?’ Then she said she was a passionate advocate of individual rights over government and everyone laughed,” says Bridge.
Durkan knew she wanted to be a lawyer when she was just five years old. She was already out to get the bad guys when she was growing up in what was then rural Issaquah. Her older sister, Ryan Durkan, ’81, now a land-use lawyer in Seattle, remembers Jenny coming up with a plan to deter burglars who had been plaguing the neighborhood. Jenny made mud pies and stuffed them with rocks, thinking thieves would be tempted by these delicacies—only to break their teeth when they bit into the hidden rocks, causing them to run away, howling in pain.
“When we watched Perry Mason (a television show in which the defense attorney always won), she would critique the prosecutor, so I think it’s funny that she ended up being in law enforcement in her own right,” says Ryan. Ryan also recalls many heated discussions around the family dinner table. (When Jenny graduated from law school and then passed the bar, her mother memorably quipped, “Finally, someone is going to pay you to argue.”)
Doing what’s right for the common good and answering the call to public service were values that Lolly Durkan, ’47, and Martin instilled in their children along with their strong Roman Catholic faith. Martin, who also graduated from UW Law, spent 16 years in the Washington State Senate. He was chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee but was known for taking on causes like housing for migrant workers even though it wasn’t politically popular. Lolly drove a jitney at the Port of Seattle during World War II despite initially being told, “women don’t drive jitneys.” Putting obstacles to fair treatment in front of a Durkan is a bit like waving a red flag in front of a bull. “The values of justice really animated our lives growing up and we were measured by how much good we did for others,” says Jenny.
After high school, Durkan attended the University of Notre Dame and then spent two years in Alaska, teaching high-school English and coaching a girls’ basketball team in the Yup’ik Eskimo community through a Jesuit service program. When it came for law school, she decided to return home to attend the UW.
“When I was growing up, the UW had a special place in the community,” she says. “It had a reputation that it was what a college was supposed to be, steeped in tradition but with the maverick sense of the Pacific Northwest. My first inclination was to go somewhere different but the more I looked at the traditions of the UW and what the alumni had done for the community, the more I thought it was the right decision,” she says.
Durkan began her career as a criminal trial lawyer while she was a UW law student. Dan Satterberg, ’82, King County prosecuting attorney and a classmate of Durkan’s, remembers her well. “As a law student, she was handling felony cases. She seemed fearless, like she’d done it a million times before. She was in Superior Court while I was in Municipal Court. I was in awe of that,” says Satterberg.
After graduation, Durkan went to work for Foster Pepper, a Seattle law firm, where she dealt with complex white-collar crimes. That experience led her to a firm in Washington, D.C., where she enjoyed success in two kinds of courts. The male lawyers in the firm rented a gym and held weekly basketball games. Durkan refused to be excluded.
“I said, ‘I want to play.’ I was the first and only woman playing in those basketball games,” she recalls. One of the partners in that firm was a friend of Dan Quayle (vice president under George H.W. Bush), who once took a turn on the basketball court. “I was guarding Quayle; he drove to the lane and then I took him down,” she recalls with satisfaction. “He said, ‘Boy, you must have brothers.’ ”
Eventually, she returned to Seattle to work for Schroeter Goldmark & Bender, where she served as criminal defense co-counsel with other attorneys on a number of high-profile trials including the Pang warehouse fire, the case of Stan Stevenson (a retired firefighter who was stabbed leaving a Mariners game) and the case of Kate Fleming, who died from a flash flood in her own Madison Valley basement. Mike McKay, a Republican and himself a former U.S. Attorney, calls Durkan “a superb lawyer. I’d rather that she be on my side rather than the other side. I would trust Jenny with my life, but not my vote.”
One issue Durkan has attacked with vigor is gun violence. She brings a personal perspective to the issue; she comfortably handles firearms and occasionally shoots skeet or heads to a gun range to practice. Her dad grew up in Montana, where hunting and fishing were part of the Durkan lifestyle. Jenny owned her first shotgun at a young age. Part of handling firearms meant learning gun safety and the proper way to clean and store a gun. In her office, a cartoon caricature given to her by her staff hangs on the wall depicting her sporting a shotgun with the words “Jenny get your gun.”
Another highlight of her tenure has been intensive crime-fighting in South King County. “We saw that a lot of crimes were related to three motels in Sea-Tac,” she says. Durkan’s office joined other federal, state and local law enforcement to raid the motels. “In taking these three motels, we had to breach dozens of doors simultaneously. There were 400 police officers involved in the takedown. It was a remarkable team effort. After we seized these properties, the crime rate dropped overnight,” she says. The action took the better part of a year to plan and execute.
When she isn’t fighting crime, Durkan maintains strong ties to the UW School of Law. She frequently serves as a speaker at the Washington Leadership Institute, a partnership between the UW School of Law and the Washington Bar Association. Its mission is to recruit and develop lawyers from underrepresented minorities for leadership roles in the bar association and the legal community at large.
“She’s very enthusiastic about the program and fostering young leaders. She’s busy but she makes time to talk to young people. She spreads enthusiasm and leadership,” says Judge Mary Yu, associate justice of the Washington Supreme Court.
If a Republican becomes president in 2016, Durkan will likely be packing her bags. She’s practiced all kinds of law, even owning her own practice for a time. In whatever position she finds herself, the commitment to seek justice will guide her path in the future just as it has done in the past. “There are people who talk about a commitment to the community and then there is Jenny, who does something about it,” says former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice, ’72, ’74, for whom Durkan was an adviser. “Will she stay in public service when she leaves the U.S. Attorney’s Office? That is the million-dollar question.”
Meanwhile, the people’s lawyer says she’s like everybody else, trying to find the time to do everything that’s required to serve the people well. Is she stressed? “Who has time for stress?” she says, her hearty laugh filling the room. “This job is difficult for everyone and juggling all the work goes with the territory. I’m on the grid, all the time.”
—Julie Garner is a Columns staff writer.