Born in 1965, Derek Anthony “Tony” West was raised in San Jose, California. After receiving his A.B. from Harvard University in 1987, he became chief of staff to the treasurer for Michael Dukakis’ presidential campaign in 1988. When Dukakis lost the election, West went to work as finance director for the Democratic Governors’ Association before attending Stanford Law School, where he graduated with a J.D. in 1992.
In the early 1990s, West became chief of staff to the finance chairman of the California Democratic Party, while also working as an associate at the global law firm Bingham McCutchen. From 1993 to 1994, he served in the Clinton Justice Department as a special assistant to Deputy Attorney General Philip Heymann; West was responsible for the development of national crime policy, particularly the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill.
From 1994 to 1999, West worked as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Northern District of California. In 1999 he became a litigation partner at Morrison & Foerster, LLP in San Francisco.
In 2001, West joined the defense team of John Walker Lindh, an American Muslim convert and a member of al Qaeda, who had taken up arms against U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 9/11. In July 2002, after Lindh signed a plea deal that would send him to jail for up to 20 years, West participated in an online discussion with the Washington Post, where he reflected on his role as a defender of the Taliban fighter. “He [Lindh] is not a terrorist,” West stated, repeatedly expressing his admiration for Lindh’s “intellectual curiosity.” West said of Lindh’s future ambitions: “He’s so intellectually driven, and he has a wide variety of interests—from English literature to World History to Islamic studies. I truly believe John will have a lot to offer after his incarceration, and I believe John’s faith has led him to the same conclusion.”
“One of the most remarkable things about John has been his ability to remain committed to his faith throughout this whole thing which I believe has contributed to his lack of bitterness toward anybody. He explained that he couldn’t knowingly sign any agreement that would prevent him from making his Hajj, or trip to Mecca, which the Qu’uran requires every Muslim to do at least once in his or her life. To do so, said John, would be against Islam.”
Five years later, in January 2007, West argued that “defending the despised,” in this case Lindh, was akin to Founding Father John Adams’ 1770 defense of the British officers who had participated in the Boston Massacre.
In 2004, West was selected as a delegate for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. At the Democratic National Convention, West met Illinois state senator Barack Obama for the first time. After watching Obama deliver the keynote address, West introduced himself to the senator and volunteered to work for him if he should ever decide to run for president.
In December 2006, West joined Obama’s presidential campaign, fundraising in North California and quickly becoming one of Obama’s state finance co-chairs. Moreover, in 2008 West and his associates in California raised $65 million for the Obama campaign.
On January 22, 2009, President Obama nominated West to be the Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Civil Division. West was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on April 20, 2009. In July 2010, West was assigned to head the Obama administration’s high-profile suit against Arizona’s SB 1070, a law authorizing state police to ascertain the immigration status of suspects they had stopped for any kind of legal infraction.
In their civil action (filed July 6, 2010) against the State of Arizona and Governor Janice Brewer, West and his legal team alleged that the law in question “pursues only one goal — ‘attrition’” (i.e., the self-deportation of illegal immigrants), and that it “disrupts federal enforcement priorities and resources.” Also, according to West and his associates, SB 1070 “will cause the detention and harassment of authorized visitors, immigrants, and citizens,” and “will altogether ignore humanitarian concerns, such as the protections available under federal law for an alien who has a well-founded fear of persecution or who has been the victim of a natural disaster.” In addition, they claimed, “it will interfere with vital foreign policy and national security interests by disrupting the United States’ relationship with Mexico and other countries.”
West’s wife, Maya L. Harris, is a prominent leader in the progressive community. She served as the Executive Director of the ACLU of Northern California until 2008, when she became the first African-American Vice President of the Ford Foundation.