Thursday, March 16, 2017
Ex-Attorney General Van de Kamp Dies at 81
By a MetNews Staff Writer
JOHN VAN DE KAMP
Former California Attorney General John Van de Kamp has died at age 81.
Van de Kamp was pronounced dead soon after paramedics arrived at his Pasadena home at around 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, a fire department spokesperson said.
He was counsel at Mayer Brown LLP, having joined the firm in the Los Angeles office in 2012, after the demise of Dewey & LeBoeuf. His work at Mayer Brown centered on the firm’s California Government practice.
The head of that practice and partner-in-charge of the Los Angeles office, Phil Recht, said he had known Van de Kamp for more than 30 years, and that his contributions to the firm couldn’t be measured in billings alone.
“I think he contributed more being a mentor than anything else,” Recht told the MetNews. “Everybody sought his advice and counsel and support.”
An important part of his work, Recht said, was serving as the independent reform monitor for the City of Vernon, a post created by the Legislature early in the decade as an alternative to abolishing the troubled city amidst charges of rigged elections and corruption. Van de Kamp “always brought calm and humility” to the various legal and political roles he played over the years, Recht said.
Not content with the role of senior statesman, Recht added, Van de Kamp “showed an uncommon level of enthusiasm for the work and for mentoring young people,” showing up at “every single firm event” and taking the summer associates on four-hour walking tours of downtown.
“We just loved having him around,” Recht said.
A Pasadena native, Van de Kamp grew up there and in Altadena before heading off to Dartmouth College and Stanford Law School. Former County Bar President Joe Mandel, who graduated from Dartmouth four years after Mandel, said yesterday that the two bonded over “a shared love of the school” and an affection for baseball—Van de Kamp was an Oakland Athletics fan—and remained friends for more than 50 years.
After returning to Los Angeles, Van de Kamp joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 1960 and was named interim U.S. attorney by federal district judges in 1966 after Manuel Real was appointed to the district bench.
He filled the role for several months, until William “Matt” Byrne was confirmed by the Senate as Real’s successor. Van de Kamp left Los Angeles to become director of the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys in Washington, D.C.
Following his return to Los Angeles, he ran for Congress as a Democrat, losing a 1969 special election runoff to Republican Barry Goldwater Jr. He later became the first federal public defender for the Central District, and once told the Pasadena Weekly that his biggest impact on the justice system came in that post.
He was appointed district attorney of Los Angeles County in 1975, filling the vacancy created by the death of the elected district attorney, Joseph Busch. Twenty months later, he was interviewed by then-President Jimmy Carter for the post of FBI director, which ultimately went to a federal appellate judge, William Webster.
He served as district attorney for more than seven years, then was elected California attorney general. He held the post for two terms and ran for governor, losing the 1990 Democratic primary to Dianne Feinstein, who went on to lose the general election to the Republican, then-U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson.
Former County Supervisor Yvonne Burke said yesterday that she had known Van de Kamp since his days as a federal prosecutor, and would always remember him as “a distinguished legal scholar and a strong believer in justice and helping those who needed access to the legal system.”
After losing the governorship race, Van de Kamp practiced law and became president and counsel of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, a post he gave up in order to serve fulltime as president of the State Bar for 2004-2005. After completing his term, he served as chairman of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice.
He also remained active in bar activities. County Bar President Margaret Stevens said he was her mentor on the State Bar Board of Governors, and would be missed by bar members, “particularly by our Conference of Delegates delegation, on which he served tirelessly for many years.”
Former County Bar President David Pasternak called him “a model for all lawyers.” Another former president, Edith Matthai, said he was “one of the heroes of our profession, always standing up for what was true and just.”
County Board of Supervisors Chair Mark Ridley-Thomas recalled yesterday having worked with Van de Kamp during that period. “I was deeply impressed by his commitment to ensuring that justice is administered fairly and accurately so that the guilty are convicted and the innocent remain free,” Ridley-Thomas, who was a state senator backing legislation recommended by the commission, said.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who represents Van de Kamp’s hometown of Pasadena, said she had seen him recently and was “truly saddened” by his death. “And while he’ll be remembered as an icon in county and state law and government and his many years in public life, John Van de Kamp was also a great family man, and with his wife, Andrea, they were a powerhouse couple.”
He is also survived by the couple’s daughter, Diana Van de Kamp.
Attorney and civic leader Lee Alpert called Van de Kamp “a leader of leaders who led by example and not by rhetoric and vitriol.” Former County Counsel Lloyd W. Pellman called him “a gentle giant who cared greatly about justice and our communities,” while Court of Appeal Presiding Justice Norman Epstein said he had “devoted his life to public service and the public good.”
District Attorney Jackie Lacey said she had relied on Van de Kamp for advice since taking over his former office, and noted that he was the founder of the office’s victim services unit. Lacey’s predecessor, Steve Cooley, called Van de Kamp an “exquisite gentleman who was always true to his heartfelt beliefs.”
Former County Bar President Patricia Phillips remembered him as a “really fun person,” who had a reputation for seriousness but “even willing to play a part in the annual County Bar Association Hi-Jinx, wearing tights and wielding a sword as he jousted at wind-mills in a memorable skit combining the law and the Van de Kamp restaurant chain of wind-mill adorned eateries,” started by his family.
Retired Superior Court Judge Ken Chotiner noted Van de Kamp’s leadership role in the unsuccessful effort to abolish the death penalty in California. “He was always guided by the highest principles, whether he was heading the prosecution or the defense,” Chotiner said.
City Attorney Mike Feuer commented in a similar vein, saying Van de Kamp “never backed away from taking strong, principled stands on tough issues.” County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl called him “a man of unparalleled integrity, always conforming his actions and his decisions with his conscience and sense of justice.”
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