September 4, 2014
Assistant Attorney General Tony West (Dept. of Justice) Assistant Attorney General Tony West (Department of Justice)

Associate Attorney General Tony West is leaving the Justice Department. If you’re a supporter of marriage equality, he’s one of the most important people you’ve probably never heard of.

As the chief of the civil division, West led an interagency process that led Attorney General Holder to announce in 2011 that he and President Obama believed the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional and would no longer defend the statute against court challenge. The Supreme Court agreed and struck down a key part of DOMA in United States v. Windsor in 2013. With the exception of yesterday’s ruling in Louisiana, every federal court (21 and counting) hearing a challenge to state bans on same-sex marriage have echoed the Windsor decision. Today, marriage equality is legal in 19 states and the District of Columbia.

“It was one of the hardest things that I’ve ever been involved in and it is one of the things that I think will matter the most,” West told The Post’s Sari Horwitz, adding that it was the most meaningful accomplishment of his 5 1/2-year tenure. West recalled that when he called Edith Windsor’s attorney Roberta Kaplan to inform her of the Justice Department’s decision to no longer defend DOMA in court, “She started to cry on the phone.”

Kaplan told me that West “understated” what happened on the phone. “I was not only crying, I had tears streaming down my face,” she said. “I was cynical about it. I didn’t expect DOJ to change its position. I wasn’t only overjoyed but I was also a little bit in shock.”

Kaplan told me that in the Windsor case, they were “very careful about making a link” between the gay civil rights movement and the African American civil rights movement. “While there are similarities” between the two, she said, the injustices faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Americans don’t compare to the Jim Crow South. But Kaplan noted, “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it was three African American men who made the decision” to no longer defend DOMA against court challenge. She’s absolutely right on this score. Last year, I heralded West, Holder and Obama as three of the “four straight black men who led on gay rights” because of their work that led to the demise of DOMA. The fourth is Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who as the chief counsel at the Pentagon, conducted and co-wrote (with Army Gen. Carter F. Ham) the study on the impact of allowing gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the military. “Don’t ask don’t tell” was overturned by Congress in 2010.

West has many other accomplishments under his belt, including record civil penalties and global settlements related to financial fraud and reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. But he will forever be a hero to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans for what he did to bring fairness and equal protection under the law to their lives, especially now that they know who he is.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj

Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Post editorial board and writes about politics and social issues for the PostPartisan blog.
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