Susan elizabeth reese

Recipient of the 2020 Ken Morrow Lifetime Achievement Award

If we are lucky, there are people we meet over the course of our professional lives that make us better at what we do. Sometimes those people are classmates, or clients or even jurists. For defense lawyers in Oregon, and for as long as OCDLA has existed, it is other lawyers who hold each other up and make us better.

Our chronicler is Susan Elizabeth Reese. For 31 years and in 206 editions of The Oregon Defense Attorney, in all its iterations, Susan Reese has written two columns dedicated to our battles and, where we find them, our victories—“Reese’s Pieces” and “Beautiful Words.”

This year, the Ken Morrow Lifetime Achievement Award is being given to Susan Elizabeth Reese as we recognize her ‘lifelong commitment and significant achievements in the defense community and her important contributions to the administration of justice.”

Susan attended Oberlin College. Her passion and ardent anti–death penalty beliefs led Susan to the law. She attended Harvard University Law School, graduating in 1972. She co-founded the Prison Legal Assistance Project while at Harvard. Susan has been admitted in multiple jurisdictions, most recently Washington and Oregon, and she now practices mostly in Newport, Oregon.

The late John Painter and she were married for 37 years until 2016 when John succumbed to cancer. Susan has survived two bouts of cancer herself, but even the most difficult of life’s challenges has not stopped her dedication to the law, nor her dedication and devotion to giving back to her community. One can list the accomplishments of Susan’s life (so far) like a laundry list of things most people only aspire to, yet I can’t help but try to explain what she embodies without delving into the personal.

I first heard Susan at an OCDLA conference speaking ardently about sex abuse defense as a young lawyer, such a young lawyer; I don’t believe I’d tried a sex abuse case yet. (For those of us who try sex abuse cases, we all know how completely upside down a client’s life becomes with the mere allegation of sexual misconduct, from losing lodging or employment to the looks of disdain from juries, the bench, the prosecution and the press. I recall being struck by the strength and fearlessness I heard in Susan’s talk. I never forgot that. One day years later, when I was embroiled in a months-long sex case in Newport, in the midst of a heated legal battle Susan appeared as a spectator and offered her support, guidance, and wisdom and became my friend. She and her husband John sort of adopted me, at a time when I was fighting but felt lost and a long away from my family in Eugene.

Being a trial warrior is lonely, tough, often thankless work, and some days it is almost impossible to gather the energy to put one foot in front of the other. Susan took me in, nurtured me, introduced me to Newport and other members of that legal community and included me in the circle. I felt inspired by her. She brought such an ardent and eloquent passion to our battle I couldn’t help but catch fire all over again.

I could also see that beyond her ferocious energy in the legal arena she carries an empathy for others quite outside the norm. She holds devotion for so many: lawyers, clients, neighbors, friends, and, of course, her wonderful partner John. Her energy, compassion and care are simply a part of a life force few others can touch.

Even with an incredibly full life and law practice, Susan still finds time to write for OCDLA, Oregon State Bar publications, and op-ed pieces in The Oregonian. Susan also contributes time to the community, supporting the Newport Symphony, the Oregon Coast Aquarium, the Lincoln County Historical Society and maritime museum, the Friends of Yaquina Lighthouses, Samaritan House and Atonement Lutheran Church. She hosted an evening with the Oregon Attorney General, participates on the OCDLA Education Committee and serves as an officer of the Lincoln County Bar Association. Moreover, she makes it look easy.

Susan Elizabeth Reese personifies and epitomizes—in every facet of her life—what we aspire to in the defense arena: the true calling to serve. Oregon lawyers and OCDLA have been privileged to call themselves beneficiaries of that devotion.