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Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

In the Name of the Law
By Sarah Alaoui, Sixth '12

Melinda Haag, Muir '83, is the first woman in 90 years to hold the position of U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California.

"I felt really lucky," says Haag, "it was amazing to listen to these men who had actually lived history and not just studied it."

Melinda Haag, Muir '83, places her Blackberry on the table in front of her so as not to miss her husband's phone call—he's dropping off one of their 12-year-old twin sons at her office after soccer practice. Wearing a gray power suit and black ankle boots, Haag sits back in an armchair inside her panoramic San Francisco office. Haag was sworn in as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California by President Obama on August 13, 2010, after she had been approved unanimously by the U.S. Senate on August 5. And she seems naturally at ease with being the first woman to hold the position in 90 years.

As a member of the first class to graduate in the shadow of the newly built Sun God sculpture, Haag fondly remembers her tenure as a Muir student. Her major in Political Science gave her access to the best political thinkers and teachers in the field including Herbert York, who had served as U.S. ambassador to the Comprehensive Test Ban negotiations, and former Berlin judge, Henry Ehrmann. A visiting professor at the time, Ehrmann encouraged his students to question the law because of his own brushes with authority—he had been sent to a concentration camp during World War II for his involvement with the German Social Democrat party. Haag also took a course with Peter Irons who was working on the Japanese internment case of Fred Korematsu. Professor Irons had been researching internment records at the National Archives when he came across unreleased government documents denying that Japanese-Americans were a real threat, thereby debunking any grounds for their internment during World War II. His work helped reverse the criminal convictions of Japanese-Americans who had challenged the curfew and relocation orders including that of Korematsu, whose case had stood for almost 40 years before Irons reopened it.

"I felt really lucky," says Haag, "it was amazing to listen to these men who had actually lived history and not just studied it."

As a Triton, Haag was not only kept busy with classes. She recalls that her duties as a Resident Advisor required frequent visits to the emergency room, tending to freshmen who had had a little too much fun. She also had an assortment of other part-time jobs. When she wasn't serving afternoon tea to the Physics department—at 3 p.m. sharp each day—she worked for a local defense attorney. There, Haag was impressed by 28-year-old attorney Elisabeth Semel, and the way she carried herself in the male-dominated profession. Semel, who is now the director of UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall Death Penalty Clinic, was the main inspiration for the young student's chosen career track.

"I looked up to her because she didn't feel the need to compromise her femininity to be in a man's world," Haag says.

Because of Semel, Haag decided to apply to law school, graduating from the UC Berkeley Boalt Hall School of Law in 1987. Eighteen years later at a Boalt alumni event, Haag ran into Semel, introduced herself, and shared with her that she was the reason why Haag practiced law today. The two women continue to meet occasionally.

After law school, Haag moved to Los Angeles where she worked for four years as the assistant U.S. Attorney for the Central District tackling narcotics cases in the Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF). In 1993, she transferred to private practice at the now-defunct San Francisco firm Landels Ripley & Diamond LLP. Six years later, she was recruited to the United States Attorney's Office in San Francisco by then U.S. Attorney Robert Mueller, who is now director of the FBI. There, she prosecuted many cases involving civil rights, the environment and child pornography.

One of Haag's most memorable cases was in 2002 at Pelican Bay State Prison where she successfully prosecuted two California prison guards accused of assaulting inmates. Despite the lack of cooperation from the other guards—they did not want to help convict one of their own—Haag's persistence and dedication paid off, reflecting her passion to fight against violations of the justice system.

In a switch from prosecution to defense, she was recruited by one of her coworkers at the Los Angeles office, Walter F. Brown, to work at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, LLP. The firm manages cases involving fraud, antitrust violations, environmental crimes, health care fraud and other corporate matters.

"I brought in Melinda because I have the highest regard for her skill, experience, judgment and integrity," says Brown. "Based upon her dual experience as both a federal prosecutor and a criminal defense lawyer, I could not imagine anyone who would be better suited."

Haag also worked with the White Collar Criminal Defense and Corporate Investigations Group, a team that represents companies, CEOs and other white-collar players.

"Melinda is highly respected in the San Francisco legal community for achieving excellent results for her clients and for conducting herself with the utmost integrity and high standards," says Jan Little, a partner at San Francisco firm Keker & Van Nest LLP.

Haag's career took a major turn when Senator Barbara Boxer recommended that she serve as the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California.

"Melinda has more than two decades of experience handling white-collar crime cases, which will be a tremendous asset to the U.S. Attorney's Office," stated Senator Boxer in a press release.

In her new role, Haag is employed by the U.S. Department of Justice and answers to Attorney General Eric Holder. She represents the United States in civil cases, and defends everything from mail carrier accidents to Fair Housing violations. Haag replaced one of the last Bush appointees, Joe Russoniello, who had headed the office since 2008. While her predecessor was known for taking tough stances on immigration issues and street crime, she is expected to focus more on white- collar crime, environmental issues and civil rights suits. Her office of 126 prosecutors is responsible for enforcing all federal laws, including those pertaining to taxes, sex tourism and other criminal activity.

"I have represented companies, CEOs and CFOs," Haag says. "Now, I defend the United States of America."

The Northern District of California—where 21 percent of the state's population live—is made up of 15 counties and stretches from the Monterey Coast in the south to California's border with Oregon in the north, and from the Pacific Ocean in the west to just short of Sacramento in the east.

"What's important to this district are environmental laws," says Haag. "People in the Bay Area, for example, are concerned about preserving the natural environment that makes this area such an incredible place to live."

Civil rights and crimes pertaining to their violation are also of great importance in Haag's district. However, the district's highest priority is national security—which has remained the main concern of every office under the Department of Justice since September 11th. While Haag is given broad priorities set by the Justice Department, she also has leeway to prioritize issues and cases as she sees fit.

Before facing her daily work tasks, Haag starts her mornings by waking up her sons and ends her nights by catching an episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. When (or rather, if) she has free time, she likes to relax in yoga classes.

As the first woman in 90 years to hold this position—the first was Annette Adams who served from August 5, 1919 to June 20, 1920—Haag is often asked how she feels about the gender issue.

"If anything, being a woman is an advantage," Haag says in response. "The women in law before me have paved the way."

Sarah Alaoui, Sixth '12, is the editorial intern at @UCSD magazine.