In the community

County’s first female DA to be honored as the Ontario’s Woman of the Year

ONTARIO – From helping found Malheur County’s first domestic violence shelter to working to improve the juvenile court system, attorney Patricia Sullivan has had a lasting impact on the community, earning her selection as Woman of the Year by the Ontario Area Chamber of Commerce.

Sullivan will be honored Friday, Jan. 19, during the chamber’s annual banquet at Four Rivers Cultural Center.

Sullivan was the first woman to serve as Malheur County district attorney, holding the office from 1988 to 2000. She went on to serve as state judge from 2000 to 2016. Sullivan serves as a senior judge, handling court work on a part-time basis.

Sullivan currently sits on the boards of the Boys and Girls Club of the Western Treasure Valley and the Treasure Valley Community Concerts.

While she appreciates the chamber’s recognition, Sullivan characterized her work in the community this past year as not being “distinctive.”

Her four decades as an attorney, district attorney and state judge along with her volunteer work in Malheur County ushered in lasting change to the community.

Sullivan’s legal career began in 1979 when she was hired as an associate at the law firm Combs and Tharp in Ontario. She and her husband, attorney Larry Sullivan, had just moved to the area.

Sullivan didn’t take long to help change the community. Sullivan said when she was a young lawyer, one of her first clients was a mother of four, who was attempting to escape from her abusive husband. When she came into the office, Sullivan said the woman had straw in her hair from sleeping in a barn with her children because she had nowhere to go.

“It occurred to me,” she said, “what do people do in a community like this? Well, they hide in the barn all night. It was awful.”

In 1980, not even a year after moving to Ontario, Project DOVE was founded. She said the organization started with a hotline and would confidentially put people in hotels.

She said the need for a domestic violence shelter was “imperative,” and as Project DOVE was getting started, she had a secretary murdered by an abuser.

When she became Malheur County’s legal counsel in 1987, she said the county donated a home it had foreclosed on to became Project DOVE’s first shelter for victims of domestic violence.

Over the years, additional legislation, such as the federal Violence Against Women Act of 1994, increased the awareness of domestic violence, but, perhaps more importantly, it provided more funding for shelters, supports and services for victims of domestic violence.

“It’s amazing to see all of the changes,” she said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done. But the difference between it was like here in 1979 and now is almost unimaginable.”

During that time, Sullivan said she taught law enforcement at Treasure Valley Community College. She said that was when law enforcement officials and the heads of social service agencies asked her to run for district attorney. Sullivan said that with two small children at home and a job as county legal counsel that she loved, jumping into the race to challenge the incumbent Jacques DeKalb, was a tough decision.

However, she said, the mid-1980s was an exciting time to be a prosecutor, given the advancements in forensic technology like DNA profiling. According to the National Institute of Justice, such evidence was first used as evidence in the U.S. criminal court system in 1986.

According to Sullivan, then 34, her gender did not play a role in the campaign. She said the support from law enforcement and social service agencies propelled her to win the race by well over 1,000 votes.

Passionate about prosecuting crimes, particularly those involving sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse, Sullivan said she loved trial work.

She said she admires the courage and the ability of those involved with a trial to get to the truth. She said she believes in the jury system and its reliance on a randomly selected group of citizens.

For the most part, she said the jury system works. In her experience, those selected for jury duty take the process seriously and do a good job. While there might be flaws, she said, it remains the best system for deciding a case.

“It enables people to participate in democracy and in their government in a way that results in a positive and fair response,” she said.

Sullivan, who was the county’s prosecutor from 1988 to 2000, said throughout her tenure, there were times when she was the only female district attorney in Oregon. She said she would get calls from other women around the state considering running for district attorney in their counties. Sullivan said most of their questions were about juggling work and family life, or they were looking for campaign advice.

When it came to balancing work and family, Sullivan said she credits her husband, who, during that time, was self-employed in private practice. She said her husband “really carried the water” and could leave work when needed. Having a supportive partner and solid day care, she said, made all the difference.

This allowed her to establish the county’s first victim’s assistance program, which helps victims of crimes navigate the criminal justice system and connects them to resources such as counseling and other services.

During her first term, she oversaw the expansion of the county’s domestic violence with new federal funding.

In 2000, when Sullivan became a state judge, she worked to improve the juvenile court system to ensure better outcomes for troubled kids, That’s why, she said, she jumped at the opportunity to join the Boys and Girls Club board in 2011.

Sullivan said juvenile crime in Ontario showed a marked decrease after the founding of the Boys and Girls in Ontario.

Sullivan, born in Idaho Falls, lived in various places in the west before moving to Portland and graduating high school in Eugene in 1971.

Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, Sullivan never envisioned herself becoming an attorney given that there were few – if any – female role models in law. Sullivan added that Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, worked for free after graduating law school in the 1950s to get experience as a lawyer. So, when Sullivan looked to her own prospects in the future, she intended to become a history teacher after graduating from college.

She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history from Lewis and Clark College in 1975 and was preparing for the graduate program in history at the University of Oregon when an adviser urged her to test for the university’s law school. Sullivan said she did well on the assessment, and, at the encouragement of her parents, entered the University of Oregon’s law school.

Sullivan said her parents were big supporters of her education, especially her father, who dropped out of high school.

Sullivan said there have been a lot of female politicians in Oregon who were “trailblazers and role models” for other women. For instance, she noted that Ellen Rosenblum, Oregon attorney general. graduated from the University of Oregon ahead of Sullivan and has always mentored her. 

Today, Sullivan said the state’s judiciary system has made a concerted effort to recruit women and minorities, which has been a positive step.

“I think it makes for a healthy and diverse playing field for people that use the courts,” she said. “It’s been a healthy process, and I was happy to be part of it.”

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