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Barrier breaker
Susan Martalla reality.jpg
Susan Marttala finishes questioning a witness while working with the rest of the public defense team as it tries for a lesser charge regarding an inmate on trial. - photo by Atlanta Northcutt

Susan Marttala has been an attorney for over 30 years, bringing a passion for justice to a career that has seen her break barriers as Warren County’s first female District Attorney General.

Martalla has enjoyed success in the legal system, co-owning Marttala & Marttala with her husband, David, working for Galligan & Newman, and currently serving in the Public Defender’s Office of John Partin.

Marttala was selected as Warren County’s first District Attorney General in 1990 when the 31st Judicial District became a separate entity from the 14th District. Two new DAs had to be appointed for each district.

Many lawyers applied for the job as the 31st District Attorney General. The governor’s office didn’t want to appoint someone as an interim who was planning to run so as not to influence the upcoming election. 

“I guess I was in the right place at the right time, and they offered me that position. I eagerly accepted,” said Marttala. “It was very exciting to be the first female District Attorney General. I was thrilled to have that tremendous opportunity.” 

She attended the District Attorney General Conference that year and was the only female DA in the room.

The experience lasted six months but was eye-opening. Two of her co-workers then still work in the office -- Tom Miner and Penny Medley.

“I tried to take advantage of every experience to learn as much as I could. It was an amazing learning opportunity,” said Marttala.

Marttala was given the award of JC Young Woman of the Year while being the 31st District Attorney General.

Marttala studied at Sewanee: The University of the South before attending Vanderbilt to receive her law degree and pass the bar exam to become an official attorney. While at Vanderbilt, Susan met her husband, David, who was also studying law. The two were married a year after their graduation from law school. 

The Marttalas returned to McMinnville to open Marttala & Marttala Law Firm, which was located in the Park Theater building. Susan was the first female attorney in Warren County and for 10 years, the Marttalas handled all types of cases from criminal and civil cases to titles and wills.

“Everyone here was very open and kind to the idea of the first female attorney,” said Marttala. “But it was a learning curve for some to get used to.”

One of Susan’s favorite cases was a gender discrimination case. 

“At the meeting with the company involved, the head of the company wouldn’t talk to me. If I asked him something, he would look at Mike (Galligan) and respond but completely ignore me because I was female,” says Marttala. “At the end of the case, when we won, that was a great feeling.”

After having three children, the Marttalas broke up their law firm and took jobs where they would be able to continue practicing law while being hands-on parents. Marttala continued working while raising Shelby, Will and Lilly.

“It was really hard because it never failed that the day you have to be in court for a big case is the same day one of the children wakes up with a fever,” said Marttala. “I was having a hard time trying to make that balance so when Robert Newman and Mike Galligan offered me the opportunity to come work with them, then I could be more flexible with my schedule.”

Susan was appointed as municipal court judge for five years from 1991 to 1996, being over violations of city ordinances. During that time, Marttala began working for Galligan & Newman, a local full coverage law firm, being involved in cases such as liability, personal injury, malpractice, employment discrimination and more. She stayed with Galligan & Newman for approximately 15 years before joining the public defender team.

Being a public defender involves many days in court, each Tuesday and Thursday and every other Wednesday, as well as on days with trials. Research is involved and motions are filed. In the Public Defender’s office, when strictly practicing criminal law, there is a regular set of court appearances.

The Public Defender’s Office allows focus on one area to learn about the particular topic very well. The public defenders visit the jail at least once a week to discuss the legal options offered to the inmates. 

“I enjoy the position and being able to help people. Most of the clients are very cooperative and grateful. It feels good to be able to help people,” says Marttala. 

Marttala believes the largest problem happening in the community causing crime and imprisonment are substance abuse and mental health issues.

“What’s surprised me the most in the past five years is the amount of people suffering from serious mental illness,” says Marttala. “There are so many people who are now in the criminal justice system who are mentally ill and need mental health assistance which has been lacking.”