Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain: From Politics to Judgment


As a young lawyer himself, O’Scannlain worked with almost all the main partners at Stoel Rives, but most of his work experience was “on the corporate versus litigation side.” He helped with the tax treatment of the employee profit-sharing plan at Tektronix, and he worked on banking and railroad matters. His first taste of litigation was on a federal case with Manley Strayer, but he also represented several federal criminal defendants on his own, pro bono, at Chief Judge Gus Solomon’s request. He still credits Judge Solomon with giving him a foundational exposure to criminal practice, which generates a large share of Judge O’Scannlain’s caseload but was something he “never expected to be part of at all.”

Immersion in Oregon Politics and Policy

When not practicing law, O’Scannlain plunged into the Republican political scene of Oregon. He made many of his early connections in the Oregon GOP through a group of Republican men who convened in downtown Portland every Friday to discuss the political developments of the week. Among the regulars in the group was a young and ambitious Bob Packwood, who was then in his second term in the Oregon House of Representatives.

In 1968, Packwood launched an audacious campaign for the U.S. Senate, aiming to unseat the four-term incumbent Wayne Morse. O’Scannlain was “very much involved” in the campaign. Perhaps his most memorable contribution came during the final, televised debate between Packwood and Morse just a week before the vote. He asked Senator Morse why his seniority was so important, given that Oregon ranked last among western states in federal investment. Packwood quipped in response that Oregon could not afford so much seniority. He went on to win the election. (Decades later, at the hanging of Judge O’Scannlain’s official portrait in the Pioneer Courthouse, Senator Packwood gratefully recounted that exchange.)

Packwood was not the only member of the Republican men’s group to win office that year. Lee Johnson was elected Oregon’s attorney general after a bitterly contested race.  Johnson asked O’Scannlain to join him in the Justice Department as the deputy attorney general in the summer of 1969. O’Scannlain accepted the offer, leaving the life of a law firm associate for that of the state’s second-ranking legal officer.

The move launched a varied, five-year stint in state government for O’Scannlain. During his two years as deputy attorney general, he helped dramatically reduce the number of assistant attorneys general and to centralize them within the Justice Department (many of them had been housed among client agencies). He also spearheaded the creation of an honors program to attract talented young lawyers to the department.

One of O’Scannlain’s daily duties was attending the governor’s staff meetings for the attorney general. This allowed him to get to know Governor Tom McCall. The two “hit it off pretty well,” O’Scannlain recalls, and so the governor tapped him to serve as Oregon’s public utility commissioner when the post opened up in 1971. At that time, there was only one commissioner, and so the job was a prominent one, with responsibility for overseeing the rates and services of several big industries: electricity, natural gas, telephone, water, motor carriers, railroads, and aviation.

O’Scannlain “loved that job” and the “intense study of economics…and very technical stuff”—bookkeeping, accounting, rate structures, and allocation of costs—that it required. He now sees similarities between the scope of his responsibilities as commissioner and his jurisdiction as a Ninth Circuit judge, which often involves reviewing administrative records across a broad range of fields.

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