Tap former Clinton, Obama appointee for pick committed to comprehensive sentencing, policing reform and restoration of voting rights.
| Opinion contributor
As this most unusual year draws to a close, I’m reflecting on how exhausting 2020 has been for those of us committed to the fight for civil rights. We’ve known great sorrow and disappointment. And we’ve never wavered in speaking truth to power and shining a bright light on the ugliness of inequality. Now, I’m cautiously optimistic that President-elect Joe Biden and his still-unnamed attorney general will be our partner in the hard work of repairing our criminal justice system.
I’ve dedicated my career to the fight against systemic injustice and racism. The global and national outcry for change is encouraging. The marches and activism, which filled the streets with hundreds of thousands saying their names, “Breonna, George and Ahmaud,” now demand action. Even in the midst of a pandemic and rising economic turmoil, we turned out to say: “Enough!”
Attorney General William Barr’s repeated attacks on voting rights, policing reforms and the independence of career Department of Justice officials have set a bad precedent. And a president willing to use the attorney general as his personal lawyer to hold on to power has further challenged our beliefs in the DOJ and the rule of law. I’m relieved that a new day is coming.
During his historic presidential campaign, Biden ran on an ambitious criminal justice reform platform. He promised to end federal private prisons, mandatory minimum sentencing and the federal death penalty, and reexamine the cash bail system. Candidate Biden also said that the school-to-prison pipeline should be abolished. He spoke of uniting our great country and fixing a biased and broken criminal justice system that has unfairly impacted a disproportionate share of Black and brown Americans — particularly Black men.
During George Floyd’s funeral in June, Biden delivered a powerful video message, saying, “Now is the time for racial justice. … When there is justice for George Floyd, we will truly be on our way to racial justice in America.”
Moved by Biden’s promises, Black voters carried him to victory in the presidential election with their overwhelming turnout in the key states of Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
What we now need from Biden is an attorney general nominee committed to delivering the Constitution’s promises of justice and equality. For our communities, this means promoting comprehensive policing reform, restoring voting rights, ensuring fair housing, bringing an end to redlining and adopting equitable sentencing guidelines. This Cabinet pick will be one of the most important, given the past four years of civil rights wreckage by the Trump administration. To move forward, we need a strong leader at Justice who will manage our nation’s conscience of crisis from our boardrooms to our courtrooms — one who feels and understands our pain.
We need an unimpeachable attorney general who can repair the bonds of trust between the people and the DOJ, who has a proven track record of civil rights, who has worked with the business community yet is committed to applying justice fairly when they overreach, and who knows the pitfalls in the system for people of color. In my view, there is no one more uniquely qualified for this role given this significant moment in history than Tony West, the brother-in-law of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
Over his exemplary three-decade career, West has worked in government and in corporate America and has fought for civil rights. He served in the Clinton and Obama administrations. He was twice confirmed by the U.S. Senate, most recently by a vote of 98-1.
Under Attorney General Eric Holder, West was the third-highest ranking official and also ran the Civil Division. He led various efforts to reduce racial bias, improve procedural fairness, strengthen the relationship between communities of color and law enforcement, and hold police departments accountable.
As associate attorney general, West secured nearly $37 billion for American consumers and investors harmed by big banks during the 2008 financial crisis. He also oversaw DOJ’s efforts to protect the Affordable Care Act.
As general counsel at PepsiCo Inc., West was a strong advocate for diversity in recruitment and hiring. His reputation for integrity and effectiveness led Uber to hire him as chief legal officer to lead the effort to clean up its culture.
But West has always remained a public servant at heart. With his keen legal mind, strong character and commitment to justice, I can think of no one better to lead the Department at this time.
Biden said when addressing the country on Nov. 7: “And especially for those moments when this campaign was at its lowest ebb, the African American community stood up again for me. You’ve always had my back, and I’ll have yours.”
A meaningful way to honor this promise would be to appoint an attorney general who will be a true partner in the fight for justice for all Americans.
Ben Crump is a civil rights attorney and founder of the national law firm Ben Crump Law, based in Tallahassee, Florida.