The Australian outback is unforgiving, but not much more so than the fraught world of partisan politics. Newly appointed U.S. Attorney Nick Brown, a onetime contestant on TV’s “Survivor,” Harvard Law School graduate and U.S. Army defense lawyer, has thrived in both.
Brown, at 44, is one of the youngest top federal prosecutors ever in Western Washington and the first Black man to hold that position, adding to a long list of firsts and accomplishments that took nearly 30 pages to detail in his submission to the U.S. Senate when he was nominated by President Joe Biden.
His plan is to take that drive and direct it at the federal justice system in the Seattle-based Western District of Washington, where he believes racial and social inequities have been fed by a sort of inertia where law enforcement and line prosecutors do what they do because that’s the way it’s been done in the past.
The result has been mass incarceration, a failed war on drugs and mistrust in the community. Brown would like to change direction.
As counsel to Gov. Jay Inslee, Brown in 2014 played a key role in the governor’s decision to place a moratorium on the death penalty in Washington, and he’s poised to similarly shake up how criminal justice and civil rights are addressed at the federal level, within the confines of the law and Department of Justice guidelines.
“Our criminal justice system has immense problems,” Brown said in a recent interview from his corner office in the U.S. District Courthouse in downtown Seattle. America, he notes, incarcerates more people than another developed country with disparate effects — on people of color and the underserved.
“We penalize people far more and for longer than other countries,” he said. “We should be angry about this and feeling a fair amount of shame. There are other countries that do better.”
Overall, he points out, crime is down from where it was in the 1980s and ‘90s, with the noted exception of violent crime and homicide — something he blames on America’s unique gun culture.
“But we can’t incarcerate our way out of violent crime,” he said.
His solution is shake things up within his office, urging his prosecutors to reconsider the meaning of the word “justice” and to “empower my people to push law enforcement into a different way to look at crime.”
“We get into a routine, where we do things one way because that’s the way we’ve always done it,” he said. “I want to change that. My best hope is that I make some marginal difference.”
As the first Black U.S. attorney in Western Washington, Brown is keenly aware of being both a role model for young people of color and of his responsibility to address the issues of longstanding institutional racism and the role that the legal system has played in marginalizing and victimizing those communities.
“This role is very meaningful to me,” he said. “My hope is to inspire young people to get involved. However, representation doesn’t matter if nothing changes. We need to bring a different perspective.”
This fight is not new, he points out, but rather newly heard.
“Those voices have been ignored or discouraged for a long time, but this turmoil and trouble has been in existence since this country was founded,” he said. The difference now is “we’re seeing a critical mass of incidents caught on camera. Before, we had to defer to police.”
Until now, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has had a single prosecutor assigned to the office’s Civil Division handling civil rights cases, whose job included overseeing the decadelong effort to reform the Seattle Police Department through a federal consent decree. A Department of Justice investigation concluded SPD officers used excessive force in roughly 1 of 5 arrests and showed disconcerting evidence of biased policing.
A decade later, the department’s record involving people of color remains troubling and the SPD remains under federal oversight.
Brown plans on expanding the number of attorneys assigned to investigate and litigate civil rights cases, with an eye toward establishing a multilawyer Civil Rights Division in the Seattle office.
“If I don’t do anything differently, then it doesn’t make a difference,” he said.
He expects pushback. “When you ask people to do things differently, it makes them uncomfortable,” he said.
Brown was born in San Francisco, but moved to Steilacoom at a young age when his father, a career military man, was stationed at what was then Fort Lewis. He attended high school locally and graduated magna cum laude from Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1999. He attended Harvard Law School and received his Juris Doctor in 2002.
While in law school, as an adventure, he became a contestant — and a heartthrob to millions — during the second season of “Survivor,” filmed in the Australian outback, one of the highest rated seasons of the reality show. Brown noted that 50,000 people applied for the show that season.
“I was in law school at the time and was looking for a fun escape before I entered the ‘real world,’ “ Brown wrote in an email. “Overall it was a great experience, but it was 21 years ago.”
While in college and law school, Brown modeled “as a part-time job, but nothing too fancy,” working at local shows and in advertisements for designers and clothing stores, he said.
Brown joined the Army out of law school and worked as an attorney first as a legal services and tax officer at Fort Bliss, Texas, and later as an Army trial defense attorney for the Judge Advocate General at Fort Bliss, Joint Base Lewis-McChord and in Iraq, where he defended soldiers accused of crimes and violations of military law. He achieved the rank of captain and was awarded a Bronze Star in 2005.
In 2007, he joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle, where he worked six years as an assistant U.S. attorney trying criminal cases, mostly involving gun crimes and drugs. After leaving the office, Brown joined Inslee’s office, where he worked as general counsel to the governor.
“Nick joined the administration in the first year of my governorship, much to my delight,” Inslee wrote in an email. “He was a rare person with so much wisdom for such a young man.”
Brown worked as a volunteer in Inslee’s unsuccessful campaign for president in 2020. He was a Washington delegate for Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention.