Justice News

Associate Attorney General West Delivers Farewell Remarks
Washington, DC
United States
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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you very much.  This is all very humbling.

First, let me thank the president, for his confidence in entrusting me with not one but two roles in his administration.  One of the mementos I have from the 2008 campaign is a picture of the president and me, in gym clothes, holding a basketball.  As was his custom on primary days, he played basketball and on this particular primary day, I was invited to join.  Now, I may have many skills; basketball is definitely not one of them.  I understand to this day, the president tells people that I am the worst player with whom he’s ever stepped on a court.  Thankfully, he didn’t hold that against me when nominating members to serve in his administration.  I’m grateful to him, not just for the privilege of serving, but for his leadership in a time of great challenge and change, and I believe we are a stronger, more just, more secure country for generations to come thanks to the difficult decisions he makes every day.

To our speakers:  Loretta and Shaun are such remarkable public servants, so good at what they do, the president asked them for repeat performances -- in Loretta’s case this is the second time she's served the country as a U.S. Attorney.  And as all of you know, Shaun did such a good job handling the complex organization that is HUD that the President rewarded him by giving him the federal budget.  Congratulations, I think. I’m so grateful they made time to be here.

Sam and Maame -- each brilliant, each deeply passionate about the work they do.  For years, Sam has been the creative and driving force behind so much of what this administration is getting right when it comes to improving the lives of Native Americans, particularly Native women.  And Maame – we’ve worked together on and off for the last 15 years and thanks to her work in connection with these latest big bank settlements, scores of middle-class families will get a second chance at achieving the American dream.  I couldn't be more proud of both of them.

My deep thanks to the Deputy Attorney General, who I know wanted to be here today.  Anybody who is familiar with this place knows that Jim has one of the two most important jobs and, I think the Attorney General would agree, the most difficult job in this department.  We are all very fortunate that Jim Cole is serving in that role, and I’m fortunate to be able to call him a close colleague and friend.

In so many ways I’d simply not be here if it weren’t for Valerie.  By some stroke of good luck, I was able to work closely with her during the fall campaign in 2008, and I guess I didn't make too many mistakes because she made it possible for me to return to this department that I love so much.  You know, Valerie is such an inspiring role model for me -- her intelligence, her grace under pressure, her ability to bounce back and always to keep moving forward.  She would never say this about herself, but I truly believe our country will be a better place because, in many of those moments when it mattered most, Valerie was in the room.  Thank you for being here today.

And then, of course, there is the Attorney General.

I’ll never forget the night the AG called to offer me the job of leading the Civil Division.  Here’s something you've probably never heard:  when he asked, I didn’t say immediately say “yes.”

I had just picked up my wife, Maya, from the airport and we were driving home in the car when I got the call.  So when I hung up, Maya knew that I had just told the next Attorney General of the United States, “I’m not sure.  Let me think about it.”

And my wife is very supportive, very understanding, so she calmly listened as I explained all the reasons for why I wasn’t sure it was the right fit for me, and when I had finished she looked at me with loving eyes and asked, “Have you lost your mind?”

Turns out I had lost my mind.  And, as is often the case, Maya helped me to find my mind.  Mind firmly back in place, I quickly phoned the AG back to accept the job. 

He said, “I’m not sure.  Let me think about it.”

I could have asked for no better boss, no more committed colleague, no more supportive friend than Eric Holder.  I am absolutely convinced that when the history is written about how this department successfully defended our voting rights when they were under attack; or how it worked to heal the divisions of race and class that too often manifest themselves in our criminal justice system; or how it found itself on the right side of history in a critical moment for LGBT Americans; or how it protected the civil liberties of our citizens while enhancing the security of our Nation -- those are not easy destinations to reach, but when that history is written I’m convinced it will say that it was Eric Holder -- this Attorney General -- who led us there each and every time.  I am so thankful that he allowed me to be part of his team and, as an American, I am so proud of all he has accomplished for our country.

Everything I want to say over the next several minutes can be summed up with one word:  Gratitude.  Those of you with whom I’ve worked know that I dread the prospect of speaking too long, so I’m going to do my best to get through this quickly because I know folks have happy hours to get to.  But I ask your indulgence for just a bit as my heart is full and there are many people to thank for that.

As so many of you know, the Justice Department is my home.  Most of my career has been spent here; it’s where I learned to be a lawyer.  I’ve been fortunate to serve two Attorneys General, in both career and political posts.  I’ve been the most junior of DOJ trial lawyers and privileged to work among this department’s most senior leadership.  I once said about the AG, himself a graduate of the DOJ career ranks, that this place was his North Star; in describing him, I was also talking about myself.

I love this department because of its unique mission.  It's an audacious one -- I suppose with a name like “Justice” audacity is appropriate.  It's a mission that speaks to the fundamental importance of the Rule of Law, as represented by that statue on your far right, aptly named the “Majesty of Law,” a bundle of arrows in hand.

But what I also love about this institution is represented by the statue just behind me -- the “Spirit of Justice.”  She’s the soul of this place, a recognition that the Rule of Law without justice is tyranny.

And it’s that Spirit of Justice that is best represented by the people who have dedicated their lives and careers to this department.  Particularly those career employees who make up the bulk of this institution.  You know who you are:  You’re prosecutors and paralegals; investigators and economists; the legal support who makes us look good and the security staff who keeps us safe.

You have withstood shrinking budgets, survived sequestration, weathered the storms of unfair public criticism and a lack of public appreciation.  And yet you have performed your duties with a dedication that never wavers; a commitment that never falters.  You are the beating heart of this department.

You are people like the amazing folks I worked with in the Civil Division -- political appointees and career attorneys who grappled with some of the most difficult legal and policy issues this department has ever faced.  Whether it was pursuing health care fraud, protecting our national security, or successfully defending the Affordable Care Act, you remain some of the smartest, most committed public servants with whom I’ve ever worked.

I’ll never forget the very first team of deputies we had when I joined the Civil Division in 2009 -- Beth Brinkmann, Ian Gershengorn, Ann Ravel, Juan Osuna, Bill Orrick and Mike Hertz -- what an incredible team.

And I’m particularly grateful for the many Civil Division support staff who embraced me in the early days when I was still figuring out where the bathrooms were -- folks worth their weight in gold, led by Ken Zwick, Peggy McKenzie and my protector, Bonita Franklin.

When I became the Associate, I was blessed with an equally impressive array of talent -- people like Elizabeth Taylor, Marisa Chun, Anna Martinez and Sarah Montgomery.  Over time, we added extraordinary individuals like Julie McEvo y, Pippa Scarlett, Richard Parker, Alison Nichol, Matt Stegman and Chris Casey.

My longtime colleague Geoff Graber joined us and helped push forward the work of the RMBS Working Group as its Director.

And there were the many, exceptionally talented career attorneys who I detailed from other parts of the department -- which is another way of saying I stole them -- people like Varu Chilakammar i, Stacey Grigsby , Ben Kingsley, Josh Braunstein and Tammie Gregg.

And, of course, we wouldn't be able to get anything done without our two anchors -- the ever cheerful Nathaniel Gamble and the always dependable “rock” of our office, Currie Gunn.

I am so grateful to all of them, and to the many component and division heads, directors and supervisors, career attorneys, support staff and political appointees -- all of them for making this a uniquely special and rewarding space to come to work every day.

I do want to pause for a moment on two individuals.  Not many people are indispensable to an organization, but these two come close.  Cindy Chang, my deputy chief of staff:  her creativity, intelligence, loyalty and sheer capacity for hard work is virtually unmatched.  If our office is an engine, Cindy is the oil that makes it run smoothly and I will always be grateful she chose to spend part of her career with me.

And as many of you know, Brian Martinez was, for nearly the entire time I was here, my chief of staff.  If Jim Cole’s job is the hardest one at Justice, I think Brian’s was a close second.  And Brian did it superbly well.  We’ve worked together, in both private practice and public life, for over a decade, and I simply could not have done either of these two jobs without him.

My deepest gratitude goes to my family -- my mom, Peggy, my youngest sister, Patricia and her son -- my nephew -- Ezra, are here.  My other sister, Pam, very much wanted to be with us today, as did my sister-in-law, Kamala, but they were unable to make the trip.  I'm so thankful for all of my siblings -- they keep me grounded and humble in that special way only a family's love can.

My mom is an amazing woman.  She sets an example of integrity, compassion and joy to which I continually aspire and anything good I may have done starts with her and my dad, and I am so thankful for the foundation of love and support they gave me.

Not physically here are my mother-in-law, Dr. Shyamala Harris and my father, Franklin West.  Both passed away within the last few years -- at ages much too young -- and not a day in this job has gone by when I don't feel their presence and inspiration. My mother in law was a great life-force of a woman who came to this country as a teenager from India in 1959.  She became a renowned scientist in breast cancer research.  But she was also a very vocal civil rights activist, and she spent a lifetime knocking down barriers for herself and for other women of color.

My dad was born deep in the Jim Crow south, where he grew up poor, without a father, working his grandparents' farm in rural Georgia on which they were sharecroppers.  The first in his family to go to college, Dad had an unshakable belief in the transformative power of education because it opened up pathways that allowed him to reach horizons beyond those to which he was born.

Both my father and Mother Harris lived extraordinary lives, made extraordinary sacrifices and achieved extraordinary things.  And I know that any success I may enjoy in my life has been built on the foundation they laid.

Finally, the two pillars of my life, my daughter, Meena, and my wife, Maya.  Maya and I have been married for 16 years this past July.  We met the third day of our first year in law school but it was Meena, four years old at the time, who introduced us.

I'm signing up for classes and this little girl starts engaging me in a game of hide-and-seek.  It was Meena.  Over the next three days, I keep seeing this little girl running around the courtyard, egging me on to play.  And I finally asked her, “Who do you belong to?”

Turns out, nearly ten years later, after Maya and I got married, she belonged to me.  Maya and I are so proud of the exceptionally smart, poised young woman Meena's become, and I could have no better cheerleader in my corner.

And then there is my wife.  Ask anyone in my office what Rule Number 1 is and they’ll tell you, “Domestic Tranquility.”  That’s because when all is right with Maya, all is right with the world.  Maya is a n extraordinary woman of accomplishment -- in the law, public policy, philanthropy and civil rights.  She has been as much my teacher as she has been my partner, and every day she is in my life is a blessing.  She’s my best friend and closest confidant; my sounding board and reality check; she helps me find the occasional lost mind and I’ll always be grateful she chose me with whom to share this life.

So, let me close with this.

One of the reasons why this place is so unique, so extraordinary, so special, is because what happens here really matters to real people.  And those of you who remain here and continue this important work -- I want you to know that what you do speaks to our highest aspirations and expectations about what a fair and just society should be; about what it means to play on a field that’s level; to get an equal shot at success.

And I want you to know that all kinds of people across this country -- they are depending on you to keep doing your best to get it right.

Especially those who, to paraphrase Hubert Humphrey, dance in the dawn of life; or rest in the sunset of life; or struggle in the shadows of life – they’re depending on you.  Those who often work the hardest, but have the least; those who know not the mainstream but life’s margins.

All of us are depending on you to make every moment you serve in this department count.  And having spent over a decade working closely with you, I know you are more than up to the task.

S o for the privilege of sharing this public service with you, I thank you.

 

Updated September 18, 2014