US Attorney office honors the first and the most recent female assistant attorneys

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U.S. Attorney Andrew Birge’s office took the occasion of Women’s History Month (March) to recognize a pioneer in the practice of law who his office can call its own: Ella Mae Backus. In 1923, Backus (shown at right, and with colleagues in bottom photo) became the first female Assistant U.S. Attorney (AUSA) in Michigan.

At the time, she was only the sixth such female attorney in the entire Department of Justice. Backus had actually been working in the Western District U.S. Attorney’s Office since 1903 as a Clerk, even though she had passed the bar in 1895 without the benefit of law school and had previously handled cases of her own in private practice. U.S. Attorney Edward Bowman, initially endeavoring to give Backus a mere raise, ultimately secured a second AUSA position for the office and appointed her to it when he learned it was the only way to increase her pay. As rare as it was at the time, the appointment was overdue.

By 1911, Backus had been appearing in court on behalf of the United States as only a licensed lawyer can. During an era when AUSAs tended to serve no longer than the tenure of the U.S. Attorney who hired them and well before civil service protections, Backus worked for a total of 35 years under six different U.S. Attorneys. She cemented her legacy of dedication and service when she refused to go home ill the day before she passed away at the age of 76 in 1938.

In 2017, Ms. Backus was posthumously inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. (Note: The Grand Rapids Legal News ran an article at that time featuring the same photo of Backus shown at top right, based on the research by Ruth S. Stevens cited below).  Backus has been featured on the U.S. Attorney’s Office website for many years, at www.justice.gov/usao-wdmi/about/history. Her life and times are well documented in scholar Ruth S. Stevens’ “Assistant US Attorney Ella Mae Backus: ‘A most important figure in the legal profession in the Western District of Michigan’” (2016). Peer Reviewed Publications. https://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/scjpeerpubs/15.

As of March 2019, there are fourteen female AUSAs in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Michigan. Many hold key positions, including the Chief of the Appellate Division and the coordinators of the Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF), the Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) program and the summer intern program. U.S. Attorney Birge proudly noted that in the last six months, three new and distinguished women lawyers joined his team of outstanding men and women. In September, Tonya Long transferred to Grand Rapids from the Miami U.S. Attorney’s Office. An alum of Harvard Law School, Ms. Long began her career clerking for federal judges, including Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge R. Guy Cole. In February, Kristin Pinkston, a graduate of the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, joined the office after ten years with the Chicago Law Department, including as a supervisory attorney. And earlier this month, Erin Lane, who graduated magna cum laude from the Michigan State University College of Law, joined the office after serving overseas with the U.S. Department of State Bureau of International Narcotics & Law Enforcement Affairs.

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