U.S. Attorney Debra Yang:
Legally Renowned

Debra Yang overcame a traditional Chinese upbringing to prove herself as America's most powerful practicing female attorney.

by Tom Kagy



Debra Yang
U.S. Attorney Debra Yang:
Legally Renowned

ebra Yang could be the answer to one of those brain teasers: Who's petite, pretty and more powerful than any practicing female attorney in America? The fact that she happens to be Asian, grew up in Chinatown and now occupies an office that overlooks the streets where she played Chinese jumprope elevates her story to something special, an ode to the American system.

    Yang is vibrantly alive to that poetic dimension. She feels acutely the burden to represent and to reflect the silent population pool that provided the hydraulic lift for her rise to an exceptionally young judgeship, then to a Bush appointment as the youngest U.S. Attorney in the history of California's Central District.


    "I will kill myself," she affirms in a whitehot stage whisper that strains to convey the intensity of her commitment to the cause of representing. She's passionate enough and girlish enough to say things like that and mean it -- in a figurative sense, of course. The literal truth -- as we learn -- is that her long days leave little time for life outside the long arms of the Justice Department. The sole competing commitment is a mother's devotion to three kids who need bedtime reading and tucking in before she can return to finish her long day's work.

    Debra Yang was just 42 when the Senate confirmed her in April of 2002. She now commands 260 prosecutors covering seven Southern California counties comprising the largest U.S. Attorney office outside of Washington D.C. To a collective population of 18 million -- more than all but five states -- Yang is the face of federal law.

    The appointment elevated Yang over many older, mostly white males with more experience and weightier credentials and raised charges of race and gender politics. Yang responded with sheer output. During her first year in office her staff filed 483 cases of business fraud, for the first time surpassing the historically busier New York office. That boosted morale and won Yang credit for stemming an outflow of experienced trial lawyers to lucrative jobs in private practice. Today Debra Yang has risen high enough to become a bright star in the Justice Department and in Republican political circles.

    Debra Yang (née Wong) was born in Los Angeles to a CPA father and an educator mother. The upwardly mobile family moved out to Eagle Rock while Debra was in her adolescence, but her upbringing remained traditionally Chinese. She was taught to submit meekly to elders and authority figures. After graduating from Pitzer College in 1981, Yang went to Boston College Law School to deepen her education in preparation for a business career. Instead, she discovered a love of trial advocacy.

    She began her legal career in 1985 as an associate at Haight Dickson Brown & Bonesteel, a prestigious Santa Monica litigation firm. Within two years Yang moved to Chicago to continue her trial-lawyer apprenticeship at Wildman Harrold Allen & Dixon while a relationship played itself out. Upon returning to Los Angeles in 1988, she spent a year clerking for District Judge Ronald Lew before resuming private practice at Greenberg Glusker, a Century City firm known for its entertainment practice. A year later the itch to try cases led Yang to take a pay cut and sign up as an assistant U.S. attorney.

    During her seven years on Spring Street Debra Yang made enough of a name as a trial lawyer to win appointment to the Los Angeles Municipal Court. When the court system was unified in 2000 Debra Yang found herself, at 40, the youngest Superior Court judge in Santa Monica. Two years later when the Bush White House was casting for a Republican star with sterling credentials and diversity points, Debra Yang rose to the top of every list. She won Senate confirmation and began her term as U.S. Attorney on May 18, 2002.

    Strictly from the standpoint of probabilities, someone who looks like Debra Yang becoming appointed U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California is comparable to, say, Reese Witherspoon becoming an ace Harvard-Law-grad trial lawyer. So we naturally expected some reality correction when -- thanks to a propitious alignment of schedules -- we found ourselves speaking to the Honorable Ms Yang. An aloof, abrupt or self-absorbed tone, or maybe even a raspy voice, would have instantly reassured us that, yes, Debra Yang is for real. How else would a petite cutie ride herd over 260 testosterone-charged lawyers bent on becoming legends on Uncle Sam's time?

    We are ambushed by a warm, hushed voice that frequently turns breathlessly conspiratorial or girlishly gleeful, punctuated by endearing guffaws that manage simultaneously to be both soft and genially belly-deep. She gives the impression of having fun. Instead of the sobriety, restraint and authority one would expect from a woman in her position, she is impulse, whimsy, deference.

    The hall-pass from sobriety, it turns out, is well earned. Chatting about her life and career is a respite from days that can only exert a jovian gravitational pull on spirits. Her waking hours are bracketed on one end by calls from bosses on D.C. time and on the other by late-night reading after tucking in the kids. Sandwiched in between are grinding deliberations and tough decisions with her own stable of dragon-slayers and ceremonial pow-wows with visiting dignitaries and politicians seeking photo-ops for telegenic crusades. Debra Yang is a flesh-and-blood weight-bearing pillar of American law and order. She gets no exemption for being small and pretty.

    What convinces us, ultimately, of Debra Yang's reality is the finesse with which she modulates her pitch. It operates an octave or two softer than expected but with impressive dynamic range, and it ends up hitting all the right notes, effortlessly and delightfully. What makes us like her is the welling up and bubbling forth of memories of a very Chinese girlhood in the Los Angeles Chinatown of a very different era.

    As we wind up the interview I am left with the image of her jetting off to Washington D.C. the next morning for the Attorney General's Intellectual Property Task Force meeting. She was there a couple weeks earlier for other select-circle gatherings and -- we feel sure -- she will return again to reflect, to shine, to represent.

GS: What have been the biggest change in your life since starting the U.S. Attorney job on May 18 of 2002?
DY: I think the biggest change has been the high-profile aspects of my job and the tremendous amount of responsbility I have as chief law enforcement officer over a population of 18 million.

GS: How has that affected your lifestyle, your day-to-day routine?
DY: My job requires a tremendous time commitment. I take work home every night. After my family goes to bed, I work for another couple of hours. I also have to travel and within my district, visit various offices and different law enforcement offices and events.

GS: Has that changed the level of privacy you enjoy?
DY: It has changed the level of privacy. I'm much more out there in the community. Available to the community for any issues they may have. Also it has changed my lifestyle because I have much less free time for myself. So all of my hobbies have been put on hold.

GS: Is there a higher security risk?
DY: There can be. It depends on the situation. If there's ever a security problem I notify the United States Marshall and they provide whatever security is needed.

GS: What's the biggest challenge facing you as U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California?
DY: I'd say it's trying to organize the effort to combat terrorism.

GS: In 2002 Senior Federal Judge Robert Takasugi dismissed indictments against some Iranian men who had been indicted for raising money for a Moujahedeen cell. Was that filed under your term?
DY: The case was filed before I got here but the dismissal occurred while I was here.

GS: How did that impact your office?
DY: We've appealed, so it's on appeal.

GS: In the Ninth Circuit?
DY: Yes.

GS: Does Judge Takasugi's liberal views have an adverse impact on your office's conviction rate?
DY: I don't think there's a direct correlation. I actually know Judge Takasugi. He's sort of a family friend and somebody I've sought out in the past for mentoring. While we have different political affiliations...

GS: You're a Republican.
DY: Yes. ... I think there are certain things we have overlap on. I appreciate the sensitivity to certain issues, but he's just one judge in a courthouse of many judges.

GS: Your personal relationship wouldn't interfere because you don't handle specific cases.
DY: Right. I don't see him that often. I'm active in the Asian community and that's why I know him. I deeply respect him but I don't see him on a day-to-day basis or anything close to that, so there's no conflict whatsoever. I just think that different judges have different points of view. Our job is to advocate the best position for the government and put on the best case that we possibly can. Our goal is to seek justice, so if we think there's something wrong with the case, we have that ability not to go forward. As prosecutors we're given a tremendous amount of discretion and we do what we think is right. When we take it down to the court, the court does what it thinks is right.

GS: You're credited with a big increase in white-collar crime filings since becoming U.S. Attorney. What types of white-collar crimes do you focus on?
DY: After the bubble burst, there was a definite focus on accounting-manipulation fraud and stock-manipulation fraud and fraud in the reporting of earnings. Corporations restated their earnings or made various misrepresentations to the SEC with respect to their earnings or made misrepresentations in their initial public offerings. These are some of the cases we've looked at. I've worked very closely with the SEC here to try to forge a much closer relationship so we can share and leverage resources when appropriate. That's one of the reasons we've been able to increase the number of cases and number of defendants in the white-collar arena.

GS: So your focus is on public corporations as opposed to mom-and pops?
DY: Larger dollar volume cases.PAGE 2

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“I take work home every night. After my family goes to bed, I work for another couple of hours.”


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