Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain: From Politics to Judgment


In 1978, O’Scannlain left the Keane firm to start his own with two partners, Ron Ragen and Dick Roberts. He remained with that firm, Ragen, Roberts & O’Scannlain, until he was appointed to the court. (Through a series of mergers, the firm grew substantially, eventually forming part of the international firm of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP.)

Ronald Reagan, the Reagan Administration, and Appointment to the Court

O’Scannlain may have abandoned dreams of elective office in 1974, but he remained very active in politics. He was an early booster of Governor Ronald Reagan, supporting his pursuit of the GOP nomination against former Vice President Nixon in 1968, and O’Scannlain was one of the first Oregonians to get involved in Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign. He eventually became co-chair of the Oregon effort. Reagan carried Oregon and won the White House.

Future President Ronald Reagan with the co-chair of the Oregon campaign in 1980. Photo courtesy of Judge O’Scannlain

O’Scannlain took a leave of absence from his law practice to serve on the president-elect’s transition team. His former experience in regulating public utilities made him a natural fit for the Department of Energy, for which he helped oversee personnel and early policy making in the run-up to the inauguration. He did the same for the National Credit Union Administration, but he characterizes much of this period as “just rubbing shoulders with a lot of VIPs” who were waiting for Executive Branch appointments. O’Scannlain himself was considered for both deputy energy secretary and chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, but he didn’t think it would be feasible to move his family of ten to Washington on a government salary.

After President Reagan took office in January 1981, O’Scannlain returned to Portland and the practice of law, focusing on regulatory issues in the energy sector. He nevertheless held a variety of volunteer posts for the Reagan Administration over the years. One of his assignments was to chair the energy secretary’s advisory committee on the disposal of nuclear waste, which took him to existing repositories in Europe and potential sites around the United States. After the committee tendered its report (recommending Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, a source of ongoing controversy), O’Scannlain was asked to serve on the President’s Private Sector Survey on Cost Control (also known as the Grace Commission), which presented its report to Congress in 1984.

Even as he served on the Grace Commission, O’Scannlain remained active in Republican politics in Oregon. In 1983, Governor Vic Atiyeh urged him to run for chair of the state party with the aim of bridging the widening divide between the GOP’s religious conservatives and social liberals. O’Scannlain respected—and had the respect of—people from both wings, and he prevailed with the support of activists throughout the state. He served as chair for the next three years and took a practical approach to “reducing the decibel level of internecine conversation.” This involved focusing on the nuts-and-bolts of organizing campaigns rather than disputes over social policy. He once again played a leading role in President Reagan’s campaign in Oregon in 1984, an effort that kept the state in the GOP column that year.

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