Minnesota’s new U.S. attorney, Erica MacDonald, carried a framed doodle by one of her sons to hang in the office where she cut her teeth as a federal prosecutor a decade ago.
“My mom puts bad guys in jail and when she comes home we do laundry,” he wrote on the page.
“That totally sums up any working woman who’s out there, right?” MacDonald said.
MacDonald, just the fifth woman selected by President Donald Trump to be a U.S. attorney, also gives Minnesota its first presidentially appointed top federal prosecutor since Andrew Luger was forced out of the office in March 2017. The former Dakota County judge will now be charged with interpreting directives from the attorney general that have so far included guns, drugs and a revived pursuit of stronger mandatory sentences.
In an interview with the Star Tribune last week, her first since being sworn in, MacDonald outlined a six-week target for developing her own list of federal criminal justice priorities for Minnesota. Her career thus far offers an early hint at how she may approach a job that routinely sees some of the state’s most pressing issues.
And, at the outset, MacDonald has already given herself a broad mandate: “Fight for families.” It’s something she ascribed to anything from child exploitation cases to white-collar crime. Former colleagues point to her experience prosecuting crimes against children and women on the Red Lake Indian Reservation as an early career turning point. While there, MacDonald was a key player in establishing a culturally sensitive family advocacy center that has served hundreds.
Tasked with prosecuting the state’s first human trafficking cases long before it became a national priority, MacDonald also won convictions that led to some of the longest federal sentences ever delivered in Minnesota. But, as a judge on Dakota County’s specialty drug court, she said she also gained empathy for offenders racked by addiction and their families.
“Back in the day we heard all about the ‘War on Drugs,’ ” said Christian Wilton, a Scott County judge who worked closely with MacDonald as a prosecutor. “She’s definitely not a lock ‘em up and throw away the key person. But if you deal drugs and you’re causing harm to the community, she’s not going to shy away from targeting those people.”
MacDonald’s soft Texas drawl has survived nearly two decades of northern living. The youngest of three sisters raised by a single mother, she began working at 15 to help cover the bills in their suburban Dallas home. Though she wanted to pursue law school after graduating from Notre Dame, MacDonald first spent five years working in management for a St. Louis department store firm to save up enough money.
“If you would have told me I would be sitting here when I was 10 years old, I would have called you crazy, right?” MacDonald said. “I don’t remember when I actually got my first non-used clothes. Everything was passed down.”
But MacDonald, 51, resists calling herself “self-made,” referencing her clerkship for a Chicago federal judge who also refused to let that description be applied to his own story: “From the good Lord that gave you birth, to your parents, to your friends that supported you, to your enemies that made you stronger — there is no such thing,” she said.
After graduating from the DePaul University College of Law in 1997, she eventually took a job as a federal prosecutor in Chicago, before moving with her husband, Jim, back to his hometown in Dakota County. Making the switch to Minnesota’s U.S. attorney’s office, MacDonald quickly began working violent crimes and cases on the Red Lake Indian Reservation alongside prosecutors like Wilton.
“She was one who would take off her shoes, go sit on the floor or sit on the couch and interact with people,” Wilton said. “It wasn’t just a job — she would go up there for two to three days just meeting with people and making personal connections.”
But even that only went so far, she discovered. Child victims of abuse, many of whom had never left the reservation, required an FBI escort to be treated at a child advocacy center in the Twin Cities.
“It was a two-day trip, which only enhanced the victimization they were experiencing,” said Tom Heffelfinger, a Minneapolis lawyer who was U.S. attorney at the time.
In response, MacDonald and Wilton pitched a culturally sensitive advocacy center to be opened in Bemidji. The Family Advocacy Center of Northern Minnesota now treats roughly 400 people each year, about half of whom are American Indian, according to Executive Director Aria Trudeau. She said the center has since expanded services to treat victims of sexual assault and intimate partner violence and opened a satellite location in Brainerd.
“When we talk about equal justice under the law, it doesn’t just mean fairness and access to the court system,” MacDonald said. “It also means equal access to human development and growth — that you have the same access to medical care that would be available in the Twin Cities.”
Upon taking office, each U.S. attorney can join two advisory subcommittees that report to the U.S. attorney general. Within days of being sworn in, MacDonald asked to serve on committees focusing on American Indian and national security affairs, respectively, describing the two as vital areas where Minnesota should have a voice.
Before even getting the job, MacDonald spoke up on behalf of what she was witnessing in her state. When asked about the opioid crisis by Attorney General Jeff Sessions during her December 2017 interview in Washington, D.C., MacDonald said meth continued to be the primary scourge in her courtroom.
Minnesota has emerged in recent years as a key hub for Mexican cartel distribution networks. Last year, federal and state authorities seized a combined 1,500 pounds of meth and officials estimated that they stopped just a fraction of what made it into the state. More than half of the 308 federal drug cases filed in Minnesota since 2013 have been for meth.
At a time when federal prosecutors are being asked to pursue more serious cases triggering mandatory minimum sentences, Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom suggested that he, MacDonald and others like them “look at crimes [in] a little different way now for the nonviolent chemically addicted offenders” through their work with the county’s drug court.
Backstrom and Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie both say they have already helped make arrangements for MacDonald to meet with their counterparts statewide during her first few months on the job.
Until then, MacDonald said her immediate priority is hiring. She will have a chance to hire roughly a half-dozen new prosecutors to bolster an office that has seen retirements and hiring freezes over the 16 months it was without a presidentially appointed U.S. attorney. MacDonald also plans to soon announce her pick to help lead the office as her first assistant, an important position in charge of managing day-to-day operations.
In coming back to the U.S. attorney’s office, MacDonald said she has leaned on advice from her “greatest role model” — her mother, Evelyn Hinkle, once MacDonald’s high school vice principal and who still lives in the DeSoto, Texas, home where MacDonald grew up.
“The office operated long before I got here and will operate long after I go,” MacDonald said. “Hopefully, as Mom would instruct, I’ll leave it a little nicer place. A little better place.”