For as long as San Juan County Prosecuting Attorney Amy Vira can remember, she was drawn to the legal profession.
“I don’t know why, but it has always been my thing,” she said, adding that she use to draw up contracts for family members.
Vira received her B.A. from Western Washington University and a J.D. from the University of Minnesota Law School. Last November she was elected to be the new Prosecuting Attorney replacing Randy Gaylord, who retired in December.
She was officially sworn into office on Dec. 31 by District Court Judge Carolyn Jewett, who worked in the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office prior to being elected judge. On Jan. 5 Vira was sworn in once more, this time by Superior Court Judge Katie Loring, with the slate of county elected officials.
Vira moved to San Juan from Wenatchee, Washington more than a decade ago, after being hired by the San Juan County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office as a land-use deputy attorney. In Wenatchee, Vira practiced in the area of housing, land use and municipal law. Her position in San Juan County was a rare find in Washington state. In fact, a majority of Washington state prosecuting attorney’s offices only have one civil deputy attorney. That attorney may handle everything from county contracts and lawsuits to land-use matters.
San Juan County, according to Vira, is unique because the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office has the same number of civil attorneys as criminal ones. The islands’ vast 400-plus miles of shoreline require additional laws to protect them, which translates into additional assistance from prosecutors to enforce those laws. The job was exactly what Vira had been looking for, and over the years she has made this community home. Throughout the duration of working in the office, Vira has watched as her teammates developed from being split between a criminal team and a civil team into a cohesive unit.
Foreseeing his retirement somewhere on the horizon, Gaylord mentioned the idea of Vira running for prosecutor around 2015. It had never occurred to her.
“The more I thought about it, the more excited I got,” Vira said.
Looking ahead through 2023 and beyond, she would like to continue Gaylord’s good work and carry on his legacy. However, the office faces challenges on the criminal side with new laws coming down. The Blake decision in 2020 that has led to the decriminalization of most drug crimes is one example.
“One thing we will be doing is working on those changes,” Vira said, clarifying that she isn’t complaining about the changes and supports ensuring getting people the help they need. The laws mean an adjustment, however, on how these cases are handled.
“It has been a major shift in how we prosecute. It will all work out, but we do need to adapt and reexamine our tools,” she explained.
The biggest challenge she sees the county facing is housing. While the council works to tackle the looming crisis, Vira said the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office is there to help with any legalities.
Providing civil advice to the county council, department heads and elected officials is part of the job of the Prosecutor’s Office. The office also works on behalf of Washington state in both adult and juvenile criminal matters and provides victim services for victims of crimes, as well as their families.
They also assist the state Attorney General in child support matters. Vira will also serve, as Gaylord did, as county coroner. A coroner is an official who identifies unknown persons who have died in their jurisdiction. Coroners also have the ability to order or conduct inquests into causes of death.
When asked what qualities make a good prosecutor, Vira said, “An even temper, calm, measured, thoughtful.” In other words, prosecutors should not react emotionally, or hot-headedly.
In general, Vira hopes to keep the office out of the media. While big cases may make the news, she said, there is a saying that states a prosecutor’s office is doing a good job when people don’t know they are doing it, and she believes there is truth to that.
When asked what takeaways she learned from Gaylord, Vira was quick to mention his leadership methods.
“I always appreciated Randy’s hands-off management style. He never micromanaged which allowed deputy attorneys to own their work,” Vira said. “One thing that has always been great about the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office is the people who work there. I hope that continues under my leadership.”