Called to Serve: Katharine von Ter Stegge '02 Plays Role in Case Making Same-Sex Marriage Constitutional in Oregon
Katharine von Ter Stegge '02 defends her Oregon locality against all kinds of legal challenges as senior assistant attorney in the Multnomah County Attorney's Office — including a high-profile lawsuit involving the state's now-defunct ban on same-sex marriage.
Von Ter Stegge has served in multiple public service positions in Oregon since completing her clerkship with Chief Judge David Faber of the Southern District of West Virginia in 2003. Her first job was as a deputy district attorney in Multnomah County. She then spent three years in the state's Department of Justice as an assistant attorney general in the trial division before taking her current role with the county in 2010.
In 2013, von Ter Stegge was assigned to work on a federal lawsuit challenging the state's amendment banning same-sex marriage. Within months, all parties in the lawsuit — including the state attorney general — agreed that the ban was unconstitutional. In May 2014 a federal judge ruled that Oregon's amendment discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation in violation of the U.S. Constitution's Equal Protection Clause. Within minutes of the ruling, Multnomah County officials were fulfilling requests for marriage licenses from same-sex couples.
You've been at the Multnomah County Attorney's Office for five years defending tort and civil rights lawsuits of all types. How did you get involved in the state's same-sex marriage litigation?
In 2013, Multnomah County, which issues marriage licenses, found itself named in a federal lawsuit by plaintiffs seeking injunctive relief and a declaration that Oregon's same-sex marriage ban was unconstitutional.
I was chosen to work on the litigation because I had the right combination of substantive and professional experience: I had litigated a number of high-profile civil rights cases, had previously worked with many of the lawyers representing other parties, and had multiple trials in front of Judge Michael J. McShane, the judge who heard the same-sex marriage cases. Having established relationships with many of the people involved made my work on the cases more effective and more enjoyable.
Working on Oregon's last and final round of same-sex marriage litigation (there was an earlier and unsuccessful round in 2004 when Multnomah County lost a court battle to continue issuing same-sex marriage licenses) was an incredible honor.
Like most trial lawyers, my career has been largely devoted to litigating the past; it was an amazing experience to be able to participate in a very public conversation about what the fundamental institutions of marriage and family should look like in Oregon now and for future generations.
What cases are you working on now?
I am working on a number of cases set for trial this summer. One involves an age discrimination lawsuit filed by a fired employee who worked in a technology-related position, another is a whistleblower retaliation lawsuit brought by a fired employee who alleged improprieties in the handling of Medicaid funds, and another involves former employees who signed a group race complaint alleging institutional racism in a department and were subsequently fired.
I am also working on a number of civil rights cases involving the failure to apply mandatory preference to veterans in hiring and promotion, which is an emerging area of litigation in Oregon due to recent statutory changes.
What are the biggest challenges a public service lawyer faces?
Exactly what makes public service work so engaging and satisfying can also be what makes it challenging.
As a public servant, I have had amazing opportunities since beginning my career to work on and manage high-profile, meaningful litigation. While I would not trade the level of responsibility and discretion I have to manage important cases for anything, doing excellent work in the public sector often means doing more with fewer resources.
No public service lawyers reading this will be surprised to learn that I carried a full caseload of other demanding litigation while working on the same-sex marriage cases.
How did your education at UVA Law help prepare you for your career?
The Socratic method employed by many of my fantastic UVA Law professors helped prepare me for a career in litigation. I cannot say that I always enjoyed being on the receiving end of the Socratic method while in school, but as a practitioner, I now see its usefulness and value.
I have argued hundreds of motions and tried over a hundred cases. I have been asked to answer a lot of challenging questions under pressure, some of which I could not anticipate and some of which I did not answer to the court's satisfaction. Three years of the Socratic method at UVA Law conditioned me to expect the unexpected and be prepared to analyze and discuss complex subject matter on my feet, in front of a room full of smart people — and dust myself off for the next round.
As a 3L I also took a fabulous class on civil rights litigation with [then] dean John Jeffries. From that point on I knew I wanted to do civil rights litigation. Dean Jeffries got me excited about the possibility that citizens can effect meaningful change in government and our broader society by suing to enforce their constitutional rights. Even though I'm usually defending civil rights lawsuits, I love that anyone who has a complaint about the government is entitled to have a conversation about the meaning of the Constitution in a courtroom.
Can you offer any advice to law students interested in following a similar career path?
My best advice to lawyers interested in pursuing public interest work is to take a few cues from the private sector. Public interest lawyers may not network or participate in professional organizations as much because they already have more than enough work and clients to keep them busy. Some of the best lawyers around are public interest lawyers, but often we don't know who they are because they keep such a low profile.
The government law offices I have worked in have provided great substantive experience, but few formal mentoring programs. I think new public interest lawyers would be wise to find one or two mentors and work to establish professional connections outside of their practice.
Having mentors and a strong professional network will help new public interest lawyers in their first jobs out of law school, but what is equally important, [they] will be a tremendous asset when trying to change jobs or advance in their careers.
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