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Federal prosecutors in California have often felt a bit out of the loop, separated as they are by 3,000 miles of continent from their home office in Washington, D.C. The leisurely manner in which President George W. Bush has gone about filling the four U.S. Attorneys’ posts in California has done nothing to dispel that sense of neglect. Bush waited until March 22 to announce his first nomination to a federal prosecutor’s office in California, tapping Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Debra Yang to become U.S. Attorney in the Los Angeles-based Central District of California. The Senate unanimously confirmed her nomination four weeks later, making Yang — scheduled to be sworn in Friday — the nation’s first Asian-American woman to serve as a U.S. Attorney and the third woman out of the last four presidential appointees to that post. CALIFORNIA’S LONG WAIT The largest of the nation’s 93 U.S. Attorneys’ Offices outside of Washington, D.C., the 245-lawyer Los Angeles office has been led by an interim chief ever since President Bill Clinton’s appointee, Alejandro N. Mayorkas, stepped down 13 months ago. Interim appointees are still keeping the seats warm in California’s three other U.S. Attorneys’ Offices in San Diego, Sacramento and San Francisco, although the White House announced Tuesday it would nominate San Francisco Superior Court Judge Kevin Ryan to the post vacated by Robert Mueller III in SanFrancisco. The office in San Diego, which is responsible for the strategically vital, busiest transit points between the United States and Mexico, was vacated by Clinton’s appointee 16 months ago. In contrast, the nation’s second-largest U.S. Attorney’s Office, in Manhattan, hasn’t gone a day without a presidentially appointed top prosecutor. Clinton’s appointee, Mary Jo White, was one of just a handful of U.S. Attorneys who were held over when the newly installed Bush administration asked all others to hand in their resignations. When White finally vacated the office on Jan. 7 of this year, Bush’s nominee, James Comey, was sworn in later that same day. Thus, in the first week of May, when Comey was neck-deep in the war against terrorism, pursuing controversial charges of aiding terrorism against the defense attorney for convicted bombing conspirator Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, Yang was wrapping up her civil caseload and packing up her chambers in Santa Monica, Calif., in preparation for next week’s move to the federal building in downtown Los Angeles. Gerald Parsky, who ran Bush’s presidential campaign in California and oversees the process for screening nominees for federal judgeships and prosecutor’s offices in the state, declined to comment on when the other U.S. Attorney positions might be filled. He dismissed concerns about the length of time it took to nominate Yang. “She’s a terrific choice, and if it took a year to happen, it’s worth it if you have such a highly qualified person as Debra Yang,” he said. Parsky said California’s two Democratic U.S. senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, who are allowed to pick three of the six members of the regional selection committees for judicial nominees in the state, have no such role in the choice of federal prosecutors. However, they were informally consulted, he said. The senators declined to comment on the selection process, though they both issued statements praising Yang. COURTING THE ASIAN VOTE? Yang, whose grandfather immigrated from China, is a 1981 graduate of Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., and a 1985 graduate of Boston College Law School. She served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California for seven years, until then-Gov. Pete Wilson appointed her to the municipal court bench in 1997. She was elevated to the Superior Court through unification of the county’s trial courts two years ago. Yang has declined interviews about what she plans to do in her new job until she’s had a chance to move in and size up the place. But lawyers who know her are speaking out, with most offering high praise for a lawyer and jurist they describe as smart, dedicated and very personable. A lawyer who tried a complicated civil case in Yang’s court was one of the few dissenting voices. That lawyer, who requested anonymity, said Yang took an “awfully long time” to issue her ruling, and the legal scholarship she displayed was average at best, adding, “But those aren’t necessarily the skills she needs to be a U.S. Attorney.” By contrast, Charles Lindner, a criminal defense lawyer, recalled that Yang was “utterly gracious” in a case he handled in her court involving a “very, very difficult defendant” who sorely taxed everyone’s patience. “She is a very well balanced, intelligent and, I believe, empathetic person,” Lindner said. “Nevertheless, she’s very tough on crime, and that’s probably what the president wants.” Others have pointed out that the appointment of Yang, a politically active Republican, won’t hurt Bush in his effort to win the Asian-American vote, reversing a tilt toward Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore in 2000. Don Joe, a Texas lawyer and Asian-American Republican activist, said he believes Bush has now appointed more Asian-Americans to positions requiring Senate confirmation than Clinton and the first President Bush combined. Yang’s appointment will certainly “help President Bush win a majority of the Asian-American vote in 2004,” Joe asserted. Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School and former Assistant U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles, said that while political considerations may have had some bearing on the choice of Yang, “politics has always played a part” in the selection of presidential appointees. Regardless of Yang’s ethnicity, Levenson added, “I think she’s just what the office needs rights now. She’s smart. She’s a great people person. She loves the office. And I think she has a wonderful perspective, having served on the bench.” OPPORTUNITY FOR AUTONOMY Yang will also have the clout of an official appointee, something inevitably lacked by her caretaker predecessor, John S. Gordon, who was head of the office’s criminal division before being named interim U.S. Attorney last year. And clout is something that West Coast federal prosecutors sometimes need to get noticed back East, according to Levenson and other veterans of the office. “I think people in this office have always thought there has been an East Coast bias in the Justice Department,” she said. “We have always been seen as a little bit like the frontier, so it’s harder to get Washington’s attention. That can be good, but that can also be bad.” Less interference from Washington is one of the benefits of being a continent away from headquarters, noted Gordon Greenberg, a former federal prosecutor who was a contender for the job that went to Yang. “Large U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, particularly those that are 3,000 miles from Washington, D.C., have a certain amount of autonomy. And so individuals can have and do have an impact on how the office is run and perceived.” Yang will acquit herself well in the job, according to Greenberg, who adds, “I think the office is going to do great under Deb.” Yang’s autonomy could be further bolstered by Washington’s focus on the war on terrorism. The fact that federal prosecutors back East have seized the reins in that campaign may give Yang more leeway to find issues that have fallen by the wayside — issues such as white-collar crime, securities violations and other financial offenses uncovered by the Enron scandal. Money-laundering, illegal immigration and narcotics trafficking and other U.S. Customs issues are also perennial hot topics for federal prosecutors in Los Angeles. “I don’t know what Judge Yang will choose as her priorities,” concluded Levenson, “but she has plenty to choose from.” Mark Thompson is a free-lancer based in Los Angeles.

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