Washington state

New federal prosecutor believed to be first openly gay U.S. attorney

The new top federal prosecutor in Seattle knows the significance her role carries for many people: She’s apparently the nation’s first openly gay U.S. attorney.

But as a daughter of privilege — her dad was a powerful Democratic state senator, and she had all the benefits of a comfortable upbringing and a good education — Jenny Durkan also recalls what someone once told her: “You’re the most non-diverse diverse person I know.”

“I don’t think I can fully appreciate how important it is to many people to have someone in a role like this who is gay,” Durkan said this week in an interview with The Associated Press. “The more people are able to see people in situations where pretty soon that’s an invisible characteristic, the better it is for the entire community.”

Gay rights activists say her appointment reflects a growing acceptance in the U.S. as well as the attitude of President Barack Obama’s administration. Earlier this month, Obama nominated an openly gay police sergeant to be the U.S. marshal in Minneapolis; she would be the first openly gay U.S. marshal.

Lambda Legal, a national organization that promotes equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people, says it knows of no other openly gay U.S. attorneys in the nation’s 93 judicial districts.

“We see it as really sort of a respectful acknowledgment that it is important to have all sorts of people represented in government,” Lambda Legal spokesman Jason Perez Howe said.

Durkan, 51, has been named to the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee, where she will head a subcommittee on cybercrimes and intellectual property. The FBI is building a new cybercrime center in the old federal courthouse in Seattle, and the U.S. attorney’s office has done novel work in prosecuting such cases.

Before being confirmed by the Senate a month ago, Durkan performed a wide variety of civil litigation and criminal defense work, and was active in bar associations. In 2002 she traveled to Morocco to train female candidates for parliament.

She has been Gov. Chris Gregoire’s personal attorney and confidante, and represented the Democratic Party when Gregoire’s 133-vote re-election win was confirmed in court.

Durkan has said she did some of her most satisfying work using lawsuits to force institutional reform — such as changes in how the King County Jail handles mentally ill prisoners after one who had been recently released stabbed a firefighter to death.

One month into her new job, she believes a similar approach could make the U.S. attorney’s office more effective in areas such as environmental regulation and corporate oversight — areas that received less attention as fighting terrorism became the Justice Department’s top priority after 9/11.

“Rather than just doing reactive cases where the government’s being sued, we have to start thinking about how we can use our affirmative powers to enforce the priorities of the department and the communities,” Durkan said.

To that end, she’s spoken with local prosecutors, state and federal agencies and the governor’s office about bringing those groups together to coordinate better responses to environmental crimes, for example.

“There’s no question terrorism remains the number one threat to this country, and we don’t want to minimize that,” she said. “But we’ve also seen in the last three years that there are other threats to our country and people’s well being. Financial crimes almost brought our country to its knees.”

Ultimately, she said, she hopes to be judged on how the U.S. attorney’s office handles those threats — not on her sexual orientation.

“In this region I don’t think it’s very remarkable that you have someone who is gay in a position of authority, because it’s woven throughout our culture and has been,” Durkan said. “In other parts of the country it might be, but I think a generation from now it will be a footnote.”