Tom Hillier, Seattle’s hell-raising, hippie federal public defender who
built an office considered a model for indigent defense nationwide, is retiring after 38 years in the office, an unprecedented 28 of them as its chief.
It would be hard to overstate Hillier’s influence in the defense community and the federal judiciary, both in Western Washington and nationally. He has been a tireless advocate for federal sentencing reform and, as a member of the Federal Defender’s Sentencing Guideline Committee, is credited with playing a key role in shaping arguments that in 2005 resulted in the landmark Booker decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which restored judicial discretion in federal criminal sentencings.
The 66-year-old Hillier has testified before Congress, twice argued before the Supreme Court — most recently as the trial and appellate lawyer for so-called “Millennial bomber” Ahmed Ressam — and is credited with building a 16-attorney federal defender’s office considered a model of advocacy and dignity in the 9th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals and beyond.
He also has personally handled some of the toughest criminal cases in the district, including that of Stella Nickell, an Auburn woman who was sentenced to 90 years in prison for spiking Excedrin with cyanide in 1986.
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For the past dozen years, he has represented Ressam, the Algerian al-Qaida-trained terrorist who intended to assemble and set off a powerful suitcase bomb at the Los Angeles International Airport during the Millennium celebration. Hillier crafted a plea deal that led to Ressam’s eventual cooperation and a 37-year prison sentence — about half what prosecutors wanted.
Ressam’s cooperation was considered key by U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement agencies in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
Hillier continues to visit Ressam at the Supermax prison in Florence, Colo.
“Tom has been our leader and inspiration for more than 30 years,” said Peter Avenia, a defender in the office. “Year after year, he has worked with tremendous energy and commitment, whether it meant keeping a client out of prison or pushing for better funding and more humane sentencing laws.
“He is one of a kind and irreplaceable,” Avenia said.
Judge Richard Tallman, a member of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, noted at a recent going-away party that he and his colleagues have appointed Hillier the federal public defender in Western Washington an unprecedented seven times, making him the longest-serving defender in the 9th Circuit, the country’s largest.
Hillier gives the credit to his staff and says his epitaph should read, “Tom Hired Good People.”
There is truth to it. Attorneys he has hired and mentored have gone on to national prominence. Among them is Rob Owen, who spent three years as a federal defender in Seattle before moving to Texas, where he became co-director of the University of Texas at Austin Law School’s Death Penalty Clinic and one of the most successful death-penalty appellate attorneys in the country. He’s now a clinical professor of law at Northwestern University in Chicago.
“When I came to Seattle, I knew the law, but I didn’t know what it meant to be a lawyer,” Owen said in an email. “I needed Tom Hillier to teach me that.
“Every day, he showed me not just how to fight for my clients’ legal rights, but how to embrace their humanity, fearlessly and without apology,” he said. “And every single day, my clients continue to benefit from the lessons I learned working with Tom.”
Hillier explained that, considering the severity and types of crimes prosecuted in federal court, going up against the resources of the Department of Justice, “often there isn’t much we can do” for a client legally.
“But we can control how they feel about their representation,” he said. “We can show them respect, compassion, forgiveness and dignity — sometimes for the first times in their lives.”
“I tell my people to don’t be afraid to fail,” Hillier said. “Just go back out and fail again, but fail better the next time.”
His efforts have not gone unnoticed or unpraised, even from across the aisle.
“You know and I know that no one can appreciate the toll that work takes on people,” said U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan, a legal adversary and longtime friend. “Hiking the Pyrenees or summiting Mount Everest is child’s play compared to the decades of work that Tom has put in. It is truly remarkable, and our community has benefited from it.”
Hillier’s passion can fuel a prodigious temper. A Pierce County jailer’s refusal to allow him to visit a client in the early 1980s earned him a night in jail when he was told to shut up or face arrest. Hillier wound up in handcuffs when he responded with a profanity.
The lanky Hillier, recognizable by his shock of gray hair and craggy features, grew up in Spokane and attended St. Martin’s University, graduating with a degree in economics in 1969. He attended Gonzaga Law School at night while digging ditches for Washington Power & Light.
It was the height of the Vietnam War, Hillier said, and he was “just happy to be in school” and exempt from the draft.
After graduating, he worked for the Spokane public defender’s office, where he quickly earned a reputation as a top-drawer trial attorney. Hillier said that when he heard a federal defender’s office was opening in Seattle, he applied and was hired by its first appointed defender, Irwin Schwartz, in 1975.
Hillier was appointed the chief defender by the 9th Circuit in 1978 and has held the job since.
He has done all this with his sensibilities firmly planted in the counterculture of the ’60s and ’70s. Hillier is a hippie and makes no apologies.
He has lived for decades on Bainbridge Island, where he and his wife, Stephanie, a teacher, raised two daughters. He drove a VW Microbus for nearly 30 years and worships classic rock ’n’ roll — John Lennon, Ry Cooder and, most of all, the Grateful Dead, a band he has seen 40 times.
Getting put on hold at the defender’s office meant listening to Jerry Garcia instead of Muzak. When he bid goodbye to his colleagues at a party the other night, he ended his speech with lyrics from “Brokedown Palace.”
In his downtown Seattle office, a bear trap with its jaws bent into the shape of the United States hangs on one wall, made by an artist-friend the day John Lennon was killed.
In nearly 40 years trying federal criminal cases, Hillier said he has been appalled at the number and types of crimes that have been swept into federal jurisdiction — many drug-related and carrying long prison sentences that he said are unnecessary, ineffective and punitive. The office’s caseload has quintupled since he arrived, he said.
He finds the legalization of marijuana “perhaps the first positive step since the Reagan administration declared a war on drugs.”
“It has the potential to reduce the prison population,” he said.
Mike Carter: email@example.com or 206-464-370