As near as can be determined, Marshall is the only US attorney who spent part of her childhood in a commune and summer nights in her 30s as a cancan dancer.

“When the heroine comes out on the stage, the whole audience goes ‘Aah,’” Marshall says now, as she recalls her role in a Southern Oregon community theater’s revival of an 1890s melodrama. “And when the villain comes out on the stage, the whole audience goes ‘Boo, hiss.’” Marshall was one of the women in the halftime show—the dancing girls who pop in to kick up their heels between scenes. 

The typical US attorney has a story that does not include small-town dance revues, rather going something like this: Ivy League law school, clerkships for federal judges, a job in the private sector, then a return to public service, usually in a much nicer car. By comparison, Marshall’s path was grittier and twistier, though straightened and guided by ramrod ambition. In the five years she spent as a low-profile district attorney in Coos County, Marshall sometimes packed a gun. Today, she wields a different arsenal: more than 100 employees, including about 50 lawyers, in Portland, Eugene, and Medford. 

“The closest parallel outside of government,” according to Josh King, general counsel for Avvo, a company that rates lawyers, “would be if [an outsider] was suddenly named CEO of a several-
hundred-employee company.”

“OFTEN THERE’S A RELATIONSHIP THERE. THE GIRL IS SCARED OF THE PIMP. OR THEY LOVE HIM.” —SCOTT KERIN

In the imposing Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse at SW Third Avenue and Salmon Street, everyone wears dark suits, ID is required, and metal detectors stand guard. It’s a taste of DC sterility, security, and self-importance imported to Portland’s soggy, self-effacing urban forest.

Six floors up in her spacious corner office, Marshall provides a stark, bouncing contrast to the lifeless, federal-issued environment. She is rarely still while speaking, clasping her hands to make a point, leaning into the arm of the couch when she throws her head back to unleash a throaty laugh. She exhibits a beat cop’s callused sensibility about messy, difficult issues. “If I’m philosopher queen, and I have all the money in the world,” she says, launching into a description of her dream strategy for combating human trafficking, which would involve making any minor victim of the crime who lacks a guardian a ward of the court. She then acknowledges that as of now, the government lacks the resources to do so. 

Her journey to the office sheds light both on her idealism and the hardheaded practicality that tempers it. She was conceived while her parents were serving in the Peace Corps in Guyana and was born in Washington, DC. Her parents split up when she was 5. Her mother was involved in Werner Erhard’s Erhard Seminars Training, or EST, ’70s-era workshops that promised to transform people through onstage confrontations and placed them in “EST holes,” a daylong exercise in cutting oneself off from the world. For a time in her childhood, Marshall lived in a communal house in DC.

“It was my normal,” Marshall says. “I don’t think it was most people’s normal.” 

With her mother preoccupied by national fundraising for an Erhard-connected foundation, Marshall focused on a different set of tasks: making dinner, helping take care of her sister, and steeling herself into a traditional American striver. Marshall made it through the University of Oregon on a combination of grants, loans, awards, and work-study jobs. She joined the debate team, where she met her future husband, and decided to focus on law, figuring it would just be a graduate form of debate. 

This bootstrapping background lends Marshall a particular toughness. To this day, she visibly tenses with disdain for the parent who called her when she declined to hire their progeny during her time as a lead prosecutor at the state Department of Justice’s child advocacy unit. “I think some kids are very limited by parents,” she says. Her two kids let themselves into the house after school with their own keys and get their homework done on their own—or don’t, and fail, and live with it. “They don’t need to win every race,” she says. 

For five years as a deputy district attorney in Coos Bay, she tried murders, arson, kidnappings, sex crimes, hate crimes, drug crimes, burglaries, robberies, and fraud. But she also found a specialty: domestic violence. She advocated for changing Oregon law to make domestic violence a more serious offense, and created a county prosecution unit dedicated to the issue. She then climbed a fairly well-worn career path, moving from the rural county office to the state’s Department of Justice in 2001. In that role, she oversaw the department’s child advocacy section. “God’s work,” she calls it now. 

This was not typical training for the job of US attorney, but when the post came open in 2009, she applied. Democratic presidents generally appoint Democratic attorneys, but within the world of politically connected Oregon prosecutors, Marshall was a relative nobody. The obvious favorite for the post was Dwight Holton, a polished attorney with deep Democratic Party connections,
who was already doing the job on an interim basis.

Openly campaigning for such a job is traditionally frowned upon, but Marshall brushed away custom. She even created a Facebook page promoting her own candidacy, a highly unusual move in such a situation, earning the private mockery of legal insiders and public ridicule by Willamette Week. Marshall traveled to Washington, DC, in late 2009 and tried (and in some cases, failed) to meet with every member of Oregon’s Democratic delegation. The most important of these was US Senator Ron Wyden, who would help draw up a selection committee of 13 people to vet candidates, then pass that committee’s choice to the president as Oregon’s preferred nominee.

“‘You know we’re not setting up meetings,’” Marshall says Wyden’s then-chief of staff, Josh Kardon, told her. “I said, ‘Well, I’m going. Can you get me a meeting?’” Another Wyden staffer now says Marshall was poised and comfortable with the senator. Although the meeting was atypical for the post, she came off well. 

 The morning of her interview with the committee—certainly one of the most important days of her life—Marshall woke up with an awful cold. Buoyed by Theraflu and chicken soup, she walked into a cold and dark federal building, and prevailed. A committee packed with figures from outside the Portland-based political-legal establishment—sheriffs and county DAs and Eastern Oregonians—endorsed her, and Wyden passed her name on to Obama. 

“She had certainly done her homework; she knew about the challenges of the office,” says Jennifer Kimble, a Democrat from Redmond who served on the committee. “Half my cases are child welfare cases. Amanda Marshall’s background—working in the child welfare system—was very important to me.”