About Us

monk seal swimming over a coral reef

A magnificent photo of sea, swell, sky, and a monk seal swimming over a coral reef bottom. Credit: NOAA/PIFSC/HMSRP

The NOAA General Counsel serves as the chief legal officer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the U.S. Department of Commerce. The position of the NOAA General Counsel was established in section 2(e)(1) of Reorganization Plan No. 4 of 1970 that created NOAA.

The General Counsel is appointed by the Secretary of Commerce, with the approval of the President. The Office of the General Counsel provides legal service and guidance for all matters that may arise in the conduct of NOAA's missions. These functions are carried out subject to the overall authority of the General Counsel of the Department of Commerce, as provided in Department Organization Order 10-6.

The NOAA Office of General Counsel is managed by the General Counsel, two Deputy General Counsels and an Executive Officer. The Office consists of a Headquarters Office and 13 sections throughout the country, which are located in Washington, D.C.; Silver Spring, Maryland; Gloucester, Massachusetts; St. Petersburg, Florida; Long Beach, California; Seattle, Washington; Honolulu, Hawai'i; and Juneau, Alaska.

General Counsel - Walker Smith

Walker B. Smith

Walker B. Smith became NOAA's General Counsel in February, 2021, with responsibility for all legal matters arising in the conduct of NOAA's mission. Walker began her environmental career as a Trial Attorney in the Environmental Enforcement Section of the Environment and Natural Resources Division, U.S. Department of Justice, litigating complex federal civil cases under numerous environmental statutes on behalf of EPA, NOAA, and other federal agencies. She then held the positions of Senior Attorney, Assistant Chief, Deputy Chief, and Principal Deputy Chief of the Section. In 2002, Walker transferred to the Environmental Protection Agency as Director of the Office of Civil Enforcement, responsible for civil and administrative enforcement actions for all statutes and regulations under EPA's jurisdiction. Following her tenure as Director of Civil Enforcement, she became the Director of EPA's Office of Global Affairs and Policy, responsible for EPA's international multilateral portfolio, including negotiations and engagement with the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Maritime Organization (IMO), and the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). She is a recipient of Presidential Rank Awards in 2007 and 2017, and a 2013 finalist (no awards given). She received her J.D. from the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law.

Deputy General Counsel - Kristen Gustafson

Kristen Gustafson

Kristen Gustafson is one of two Deputy General Counsels for NOAA's Office of General Counsel. Ms. Gustafson oversees the legal work of the National Marine Fisheries Service nationwide. She has over 20 years of environmental law experience. Before coming to NOAA in March 2016, she worked from 2001-2016 in the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice, first as a trial attorney and then as an assistant chief in the Wildlife and Marine Resources Section. During that time, she defended federal agencies in district and appellate courts in litigation brought under wildlife, natural resource, and other statutes. Ms. Gustafson was also detailed to the Division's Law and Policy Section for over a year where she gained speech writing and legislative experience. Before joining the Department of Justice, Ms. Gustafson clerked for the Honorable Ellen Segal Huvelle of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. She began her career as an associate in the litigation practice at Arnold & Porter, a private law firm based in Washington, D.C. Ms. Gustafson received her undergraduate degree (B.A.) in history from Princeton University in 1994 and her law degree (J.D.) from New York University School of Law in 1997.

Deputy General Counsel - Jeff Dillen

Jeff Dillen

Jeff Dillen is one of two Deputy General Counsels for NOAA's Office of General Counsel and oversees the legal work of a broad range of NOAA programs, principally the National Ocean Service, the National Weather Service, and NOAA's research and satellite programs.  Mr. Dillen's appointment as Deputy General Counsel in February 2016 followed a decade of service leading a Section of NOAA's Office of General Counsel specializing in legal issues related to hydrographic services and ocean and coastal stewardship.

Mr. Dillen has over 20 years of environmental law experience.  Prior to coming to NOAA, he spent nearly four years in the Natural Resources Section of the Department of Justice, defending federal agencies in suits arising under the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, and other natural resources-related statutes.  He began his career at Dorsey & Whitney LLP, a private law firm based in Minneapolis, as part of the firm's environment and regulated industry practice group. 

Mr. Dillen received his B.S. in environmental resource management from the Pennsylvania State University in 1993 and joint degrees from the University of Wisconsin Law School (J.D.) and the University of Wisconsin Institute for Environmental Studies (M.S. in land resources) in 1997.

Executive Officer - Kenneshia Ruto

Kenneshia Ruto

Kenneshia Ruto is the Executive Officer for NOAA's Office of General Counsel and oversees all matters related to financial management, human capital management and implementing the organization's strategic goals and vision.  She joined the Office of General Counsel in 2019 after serving five years in the NOAA Budget Office as the Budget Formulation Section Chief and Corporate Financial Management Division Section Chief.

Kenneshia has 20 years of human resources and financial management experience and has served as a leader in numerous organizations.  Prior to coming to NOAA, Kenneshia spent over twelve years working with Defense Agencies to include the Civilian Personnel Management Service, the Army Budget Office (Pentagon), the Deputy Chief of Staff G-8 Programs (Pentagon) and the United States Army Reserve Command.  Kenneshia is a graduate of the Army Comptroller Civilian Intern Program.

Kenneshia is the recipient of the NOAA Silver Sherman Award, the Department of the Army Commander's Award for Civilian Service and the Army Superior Civilian Service Award.  Kenneshia received her undergraduate degree (B.S.) in management and computer information systems from Park University in 2002 and her graduate degree in public policy from George Mason University in 2010.