Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis, a local prosecutor who built a national reputation as an advocate for the death penalty, truth in sentencing and crime victims’ rights, will not run for re-election.
The courtroom veteran informed his staff on Wednesday he will retire when his four-year term ends in January 2019, nearly 25 years after his appointment to restore an office tainted by corruption.
“A graceful exit is as important as a graceful entrance,” Marquis said. “I’ve sort of been thinking about this for a year or two or maybe longer.”
Voluble and combative, Marquis was elected six times since Gov. Barbara Roberts appointed him in 1994.
Marquis, 65, remembered the unusual circumstances that brought him to Astoria in the first place. His predecessor, Julie Leonhardt, was recalled and convicted of framing two police officers for drugs in an attempt to clear her fiancée of criminal charges.
A chief deputy in Deschutes County before Leonhardt was removed, Marquis drove to and from the North Coast for six weekends in anticipation that he might get the job.
“I didn’t know if it was the kind of place I would like, and I wanted to talk to people,” he said.
Marquis’ first election — his only contested one — came just two months after being sworn in.
“It was a very odd way to enter elected office,” he said. “That was very challenging.”
As the county’s top prosecutor, Marquis handled many of the most high-profile trials over the past few decades. But he also delegated cases to deputies such as Dawn McIntosh — now a Circuit Court judge — and Chief Deputy District Attorney Ron Brown.
Brown is expected to run for district attorney in the May election.
“As much as I enjoyed it, I was never going to give others in my office the chance to learn how to do it and, frankly, two brains are better than one,” Marquis said. “Part of that, I think, is just growing up as a manager, particularly of a DA’s office.”
He most clearly recalled the cases over his career where he developed a relationship with the victim’s family.
The most recent example came in the case of Jessica Smith, a Washington state woman who was sentenced in 2016 to life in prison for drowning her infant daughter and attempting to kill her teenage daughter at a Cannon Beach hotel.
Marquis was giving a lecture to law students in Chicago in 2014 when he received the call about the case. He hurried home and spent the next few days in Cannon Beach as authorities searched for Smith. Over the course of the two-year case, he developed relationships with the daughter who survived the attack as well as the father, he said.
Vocal district attorney
Marquis, who describes himself as a centrist Democrat, has cultivated a reputation as one of the most vocal district attorneys in Oregon and across the country.
He has been a leader in prosecuting animal abuse and elder abuse crimes. He has spoken out against marijuana legalization and the reclassification of heroin and methamphetamine possession from felonies to misdemeanors. He has advocated for truth in sentencing and the death penalty. He has also been among the biggest skeptics of reform initiatives intended to reduce prison use for drug and property crimes.
His columns have been published in newspapers from The Daily Astorian and The Oregonian to The New York Times, and he has made a host of national television appearances. A frequent voice on criminal justice issues at the state Capitol in Salem, Marquis has also testified before Congress five times.
“I’ve seen Josh on just about everything,” Brown said. “He’s been on Court TV and you name it. He enjoys that kind of thing.”
David Rogers, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, has challenged Marquis on a number of issues. But his ability to convey his viewpoints is not one of them.
“Mr. Marquis likes attention and puts himself out there,” Rogers said. “There’s probably much more knowledge of where he stands than of other district attorneys in the state.”
Marquis, a former journalist, shrugs off the suggestion that he courts publicity.
“The thrill of being in The New York Times sort of wore off about 10 years ago,” he said.
Marquis said the only higher office he’s considered was U.S. attorney in Oregon. After campaigning for Barack Obama for president in 2008, he was a finalist for the job but eventually passed over, he said.
“In reflection, I’m probably glad I didn’t get it. You don’t have as much autonomy as I do as district attorney,” Marquis said. “I’ve never sought any other political office and, frankly, being the DA is a terrible way to do it. You piss off too many people either by prosecuting them or not prosecuting them.”
Marquis has long supported a new county jail and fought to move drunken-driving cases from Astoria Municipal Court to Circuit Court.
The Clatsop County Board of Commissioners briefly revoked his stipend in 2007 before it was reinstated, a move that Marquis maintains was a political jab.
“I’m sure people feel like it’s playing whack-a-mole to shut me up sometimes. I was annoying.” Marquis said. “I have never withdrawn from public debate out of concern that this is going to bite me in my political ambitions, and I’m sure I’ve paid a price for it as a result.”
Most recently, he has battled the ACLU, which raises a stern eyebrow to what it views as Marquis’ tough-on-crime policies. The organization also launched a campaign last year to inform voters about district attorneys in the hopes that it will lead to criminal justice reform. Marquis has criticized the campaign, saying it has been led by out-of-state interests.
As a core example of what it says is a lack of accountability among district attorneys, the ACLU has pointed to a number of top prosecutors in the state, like Marquis, who often run unopposed. Marquis said, though, that the campaign did not influence his decision not to seek re-election.
“If it was up to that, I’d run again just to prove to them that I can get elected for a seventh term,” Marquis said.
Rogers doesn’t doubt that.
“Josh Marquis is a strong-minded person,” Rogers said. “It would be great if we had that ability and power with him, but he seems stuck in his ways.”
Rogers points to that tendency as a possible reason why opponents have rarely challenged Marquis around election season.
“He certainly doesn’t hesitate to show harsh words with those he’s disagreed with. People may not be willing to get involved with that.” Rogers said. “Voters in Clatsop County haven’t had much of a choice.”
Marquis credits his upbringing for his ability to juggle multiple things at once.
His mother came from a Mormon family, and his great-grandfather was a polygamist. His father was a refugee from Nazi Germany. They did not have a television in the house until he was 17 years old, forcing him to read books night and day.
“I was very fortunate who my parents were,” Marquis said.
The curiosity from reading led him to pursue a career in journalism in college. Even after attending law school, he spent time in the early 1980s both as a reporter for the Los Angeles Daily Journal — a legal newspaper — and as a speechwriter for then-California Attorney General John Van de Kamp. “I really thought I was going to be a journalist when I was an undergraduate,” Marquis said. “Most of my friends were journalists, most of the women I was dating were reporters until, in fact, I married Cindy in 1995.”
His wife, Cindy Price, serves on the Astoria City Council.
Journalism offered Marquis a glimpse into a number of realms, including district attorneys’ offices.
“I just found what they did in the DA’s office absolutely fascinating,” Marquis said. “My time as a reporter made me learn that if I wanted to defend the poor and the helpless and the vulnerable, it wasn’t going to be as a defense attorney. It was going to be as a prosecutor.”
Marquis does not plan to run for political office, he said. He also vowed not to try to run the district attorney’s office from the outside.
“If they want my counsel, they’ll ask for it,” he said. “I don’t plan on thinking that I can continue running or influencing that office any more than any other citizen.”
But don’t expect him to back away from public debate. In retirement, he will have more time to read, to write and to talk. He will also have more freedom to express his opinions.
“I intend to be more outspoken — not to be the shy, soft-spoken, cautious individual I’ve been for the last 24 years,” Marquis said.
He was only half-joking.