In his current job as head of the department’s civil division, West has led the effort to overturn immigration laws passed in Arizona, Alabama, South Carolina and Utah.
California-born and bred, West came to Justice in 1993, one year out of Stanford Law School, where he was the president of the Stanford Law Review.
“I didn’t go to law school wanting to be a lawyer,” West said in an interview. “I was always more interested in public service. What I discovered is you could practice law and be a public servant.”
West first served at Justice in the Clinton administration as a special assistant to the deputy attorney general, then became an assistant U.S. attorney in the Northern District of California and served in that and a state position there until 2001, when he became a partner at Morrison & Foerster in San Francisco. He represented clients ranging from large corporations to John Walker Lindh, who pleaded guilty to working with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
West has also tried to enter politics, losing a 1998 race for the San Jose City Council. Two years later, he ran unsuccessfully for a state assembly seat. (His sister-in-law, Kamala Harris, is the California attorney general.)
West came to Washington to head the civil division in the first days of the Obama administration in January 2009. He had known Obama for several years, having first met him in 2004 at the Democratic Convention. West served as the California co-chairman of his presidential campaign, helping raise a record $65 million.
As head of the sprawling civil division, the department’s largest litigating division, West has been involved in the agency’s most far-reaching efforts over the past three years — defending Obama’s health-care reform legislation against constitutional challenges, litigating national security issues, such as the habeas petitions brought by Guantanamo Bay detainees, and leading the civil enforcement action filed in response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
“We are the government’s law firm,” said West of the civil division. “There isn’t an issue — national security, domestic policy, the budget, health-care fraud or financial fraud — that doesn’t come through civil.”
West also has worked closely with other agencies, especially the Federal Trade Commission, in pursuit of fraud prosecutions.
“He’s incredibly dynamic,” said David Vladeck, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “He’s wicked smart and energetic, warm and genuine, and where our agencies overlap, he’s shown remarkable leadership.”
West’s division has worked closely with the Health and Human Services Department to pursue consumer protection and health-care fraud. “We have recovered nearly $9 billion in health-care fraud for taxpayers,” West said. “That’s a record.”
West is married to Maya Harris. He said they met in the first few days of registration at Stanford, when a 5-year-old girl kept trying to play hide-and-go-seek with him. Her mother was Harris, another law school student, and she and West soon became close friends.
It was after he graduated and moved to Washington that they began a long-distance romance and eventually married.
Harris is now a vice president at the Ford Foundation in New York. Nearly every weekend, West takes the Amtrak to New York, where he and Maya have what he calls a “date night.” The little girl he met at Stanford, Meena Harris, is 27 and a third-year law student at Harvard, where West studied government as an undergraduate and was publisher of the Harvard Political Review.
West lives in the Chinatown section of the District, walking to work every day. He is a runner and next month plans to compete in a half-marathon in Oakland, Calif., where he and his wife still own a home.
In his spare time, West says he watches action films and reads biographies; he said he is currently reading David McCullough’s biography of John Adams.
His predecessor, Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli, was the lead negotiator of the recent mortgage fraud settlement with 49 states and the country’s five largest banks.
Taking West’s place as acting assistant attorney general for the civil division will be Stuart Delery, who is senior counselor to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.
Delery, a Yale Law School graduate and former clerk for U.S. Supreme Court justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Byron R. White, was also an associate deputy attorney general.