The federal prosecutor tasked with quarterbacking the Obama administration’s high-profile case against Arizona’s immigration law is no stranger to controversy or the limelight.
Justice Department attorney Tony West is a member of the so-called “Gitmo 9” — a group of lawyers who have represented terror suspects.
West, the assistant attorney general for the department’s Civil Division, once represented “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh, a controversial move that West feared would derail his political ambitions and helped delay his nomination to the department for three months in 2009.
He helped negotiate a 20-year sentence for Lindh, an American citizen who was 21 years old when he was captured in Afghanistan in 2001. Under the deal, Lindh avoided a life sentence by pleading guilty to serving in the Taliban army and carrying weapons, and the government dropped its most serious charges, including conspiracy to kill Americans and engaging in terrorism.
Now West will lead the U.S. effort to block Arizona’s immigration law from its July 29 implementation. The law makes it a crime to be in the state without immigration papers and requires police to determine whether suspects are in the country legally — a provision that critics say will promote racial profiling and is unconstitutional.
In the lawsuit, the Justice Department claims the federal government has “preeminent authority” on immigration enforcement and that the Arizona law “disrupts” that balance.
West’s past representation of a convicted terrorist could distract attention from the case that is riveting the country. He is among the seven Justice Department attorneys whose identities were revealed in March after months of hot pursuit by Republican lawmakers seeking to uncover the nine known officials who had represented terror suspects.
The attorneys were criticized by Keep America Safe, a group run by Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, Debra Burlingame, whose brother was killed in the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and Bill Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard and a Fox News contributor.
But lawyers who represented terror suspects also worked in the Bush administration, including Pratik Shah, Trisha Anderson and Varda Hussain. Cheney’s campaign prompted a backlash from the right, as a number of conservative attorneys released a statement in March calling the criticism “unjust” — the statement cited the fact that former President John Adams defended the British following the Boston Massacre.
Before West represented Lindh as a litigation partner at Morrison & Foerster in San Francisco, he was an up-and-coming political star, drawing attention for his service in the Clinton Justice Department under Attorney General Janet Reno as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California. He has worked on six presidential campaigns, including both of Bill Clinton’s.
A graduate of Harvard College, where he served as publisher of the Harvard Political Review, and Stanford Law School, where he was elected president of the Stanford Law Review, West has said he worked his way through college cleaning dormitory bathrooms and clerking in an office.
He was an early supporter of Obama’s presidential campaign, serving as co-chairman of his fundraising committee. West is credited with helping Obama raise an estimated $65 million in California.
He has also played a starring role in politics, once launching an unsuccessful bid for a seat on a San Jose area state Assembly seat. West lost in a campaign that was considered nasty even for California’s standards.
But his decision to help defend Lindh is perhaps the defining moment of his legal career so far.
West knew the political risk he was taking, recounting to the San Francisco Chronicle in 2008 that when he was asked to join Lindh’s defense team, he sought assurances that Lindh did not take up arms against Americans and didn’t help plan the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
West told the newspaper that he accepted the case because he was concerned that Lindh might have been denied human rights and due process.
“When you think about the worst thing that terrorists can do to this country, it is that they can make you rethink your fundamental commitments to those principles that make our nation unique and make us great,” West told the newspaper. “I really believe that in working on that case, I was recommitting myself to those principles of due process, fairness – things that separate us from most nations in this world and which make us unique.”