President Obama on Thursday nominated Oakland attorney Tony West, a former federal prosecutor and prolific Obama campaign fundraiser, to head the U.S. Department of Justice's civil division.
West, 43, is a litigation partner at Morrison & Foerster in San Francisco, representing people and companies in civil and criminal matters since 2001; perhaps his highest-profile case there has been helping to defend "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh.
West's office said he was traveling and unavailable for comment Thursday.
"The American people deserve to have faith that their Justice Department will keep them safe and uphold our most basic rights," Obama said of West's and other Justice appointments in a statement Thursday. "This group has the depth of experience and integrity necessary to accomplish these goals."
If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, West will be the assistant attorney general in charge of a division representing the United States, its departments and agencies, members of Congress, Cabinet officers and other federal employees in a wide range of litigation. The civil division's attorneys handle thousands of cases per year involving billions of dollars in claims and recoveries, dealing with significant policy issues often of constitutional dimensions.
Former California Assembly Speaker and former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, who said he's been a political mentor to West, said Thursday that the high-ranking job would be a big step for anybody "but particularly for a young man who has a 30- or 40-year career ahead of him."
"His entire history is not unlike Obama's history, except at a different university," he said, adding Obama's calls for government accountability and transparency are well-served through West's appointment. "I don't think he knows how to do it any differently, and I would guess that this Civil Division, if it's going to reflect Tony West, is going to be unparalleled."
West long has been a mover-and-shaker in Democratic Party circles. A candidate in the 23rd Assembly District's 2000 Democratic primary, he later served as a delegate for John Kerry at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004 — meeting Obama there, soon after the speech that put the future president on many Americans' radar for the first time — and then for Obama in Denver in 2008. He served as a California finance co-chairman for Obama's campaign, raising at least $500,000 for the candidate and often speaking on his behalf at campaign events.
West holds an undergraduate degree from Harvard College, where he was the Harvard Political Review's publisher, and a law degree from Stanford University, where he was the Stanford Law Review's president.
In 1993 and 1994, he was a special assistant in the Clinton administration's Justice Department, working on national crime policy including the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill.
From 1994 to 1999, he was an assistant U.S. attorney here in Northern California, prosecuting a wide range of criminal cases; his highest-profile case there might have been that of the "Orchid Club," an international online child pornography and molestation ring involving 16 defendants in four countries — all convicted.
From 1999 to 2001, West was a California Special Assistant Attorney General appointed by then Attorney General Bill Lockyer to advise on high-tech crime, identity theft, the Microsoft antitrust litigation, police officer training, civil rights and police misconduct; in 1999, he helped lead a review of the shooting death of an unarmed woman by four Riverside police officers, which led to that department being forced to adopt new policies.
"He had a wonderfully diverse professional background that helped my office, and it's become even more diverse because of his private practice experience since," Lockyer, now California State Treasurer, said Thursday. "He had a skill at listening carefully to people of diverse viewpoints and trying to get them to figure out ways that they could work together and compromise and get something done. That's a good skill-set for this kind of job."West's wife, Maya Harris, until recently was executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California; his sister-in-law is San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, who called his appointment "a brilliant choice."
"I've known Tony since he was in law school and he is, in a word, brilliant," she said. "Anyone who knows him knows him to be someone who is completely modest, who is always even-tempered, who conducts himself with the highest level of integrity and ethics, and I think all of those are very important qualities in an assistant attorney general."